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  • The Mexican government has denied all allegations of abusing surveillance software to target government critics.

    The Mexican government has denied all allegations of abusing surveillance software to target government critics. | Photo: Reuters

Cyber watchdogs have confirmed that the international human rights group investigating the Ayotzinapa student's case had been targeted by spyware.

Investigations into Mexico’s cyber spyware has revealed that President Enrique Peña Nieto's government information probes have spread to international targets, experts reported.

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This marks the first known incident where the Israeli spyware, known as Pegasus, which was purchased by the Mexican government, has been used to violate the privacy of international subjects.

A team from Citizen Lab, commissioned by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission to investigate claims of privacy violations, have confirmed that members of the International Group of Independent Experts had been targeted.

“This case, just on its face — and presuming the veracity of the allegations — is serious enough to warrant the creation of an international commission,” James L. Cavallaro, a commissioner on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights who appointed the group of experts told the New York Times.

“The commission shares the concerns of others: How can the government be trusted to investigate its own alleged violation of citizen rights given its track record in this matter?” Cavallaro said.

The international group of lawyers was sent to investigate the unsolved disappearance of 43 Ayotzinapa students in 2014. Upon arrival, their suspicions were aroused because they received almost no help from governmental officials. Many of their questions and demands for documents were denied.

“The Mexican government implored the commission to create this expert group, and then when their investigation did not ratify the official version, things changed,” Cavallaro said. “If it’s true that the government spied, or tried to spy on our experts, that would be an outrage of historic proportions.”

According to evidence from Citizen Lab, in light of their investigations and criticism of the government, activist leaders became persons of interest, receiving viral texts via the organization’s group cell phone. The smartphone was utilized by all members to contact sources, the Mexican government, as well as the human rights organization by whom they were commissioned.

The lawyers reported their suspicions in June when they announced they had received fake messages with a link to a story related to the case. According to the report, such text messages functioned to open a phone up to the spyware.

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“To have evidence that we are victims of actual surveillance, it confirms that we are under threat. And that the government is willing to use illegal measures to try and stop us,” Mario Patron, one of the lawyers, told the New York Times.

“If this can happen to an independent body that has immunity and that is invited by the government, it is a bit scary to think of what could happen to a common citizen in Mexico,” said Francisco Cox, one of the investigators and a prominent Chilean lawyer.

Prominent Mexican journalists, activists, and lawyers, who have been outspoken critics of the Mexican government, have been targets of a spyware that government agencies acquired under the guise of fighting terrorism, a new New York Times investigation revealed earlier in June.

The newspaper reported that at least three federal agencies have bought spyware from an Israeli company for a sum of US$80 million since 2011. The Pegasus software is able to hack a smartphone and gain access to calls, texts messages, and emails, as well as control the device's microphone and camera.

The Israeli software manufacturers, known as NSO claim the spyware is almost impossible to trace back to its source, however, they said they only conduct business with governments.

“Citizen Lab and our partners are finding people targeted with NSO spyware almost wherever we look in Mexico,” Citizen Lab’s senior researcher, John Scott-Railton said.

“I have never seen anything that matches the scale and scope of this case,” he continued.

Meanwhile, the Mexican government maintains its position, denying any connection to the case, saying its affiliates have never engaged in surveillance against human rights defenders.

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