An Israeli surveillance company embroiled in multiple scandals in recent years has been linked to attempts to hack colleagues of a prominent Mexican journalist killed last year, The New York Times reported Tuesday.
Herzliya-based NSO Group, which specializes in cyber espionage tools, has sold its Pegasus spyware to the Mexican government, which last year used it to target dissident journalists via text messages, the newspaper said.
The messages were sent to colleagues of Javier Valdez, a prominent investigative reporter who was shot dead in May 2017, just a day after his death, the report said. The messages falsely claimed that his killers had been arrested.
Some of the targeted journalists are employees of RioDoce, an independent news site critical of the Mexican government.
They were suspicious of the text messages since the vast majority of murder cases in the country go unsolved, and refused to click on the embedded links.
And indeed, Canadian internet watchdog Citizen Lab discovered that the messages were infected with the advanced Israeli spying tool that would have hacked their phones had they clicked on the links, allowing access to private messages, emails, the phone’s camera and its microphone.
One of Valdez’s coworkers, Ismael Bojorquez, co-founder and news director at RioDoce, told The New York Times that the most likely culprit was the Mexican government.
“I believe they wanted to search our conversations and messages for clues to the murder of Javier, but we are absolutely against this,” he said.
The NSO Group has been the subject of much controversy in recent years, with Citizen Lab claiming that the Pegasus software marketed by the company is being used by a number of countries “with dubious human rights records and histories of abusive behavior by state security services.”
The NSO Group has insisted in the past that it sells its software to clients on the condition that it be used only against crime and terrorism, and has shirked responsibility in cases where it was allegedly used for civil rights abuses.
According to the report, Citizen Lab has recorded at least 47 journalists killed in Mexico since President Enrique Pena Nieto took office in 2012, including 15 in the last 18 months.
Still, a reporter as prominent as Valdez had been considered “untouchable,” according to Bojorquez. “When they killed Javier, we understood from that point on that they could kill anyone,” he told the Times.
The Mexican government responded to the report by simply saying it couldn’t comment on details of the ongoing investigation and that it’s “open” to collaborating with the victims.
A spokesperson for NSO said: “We hold ourselves to a rigorous standard of ethics and regulatory compliance and take any accusation seriously, no matter the source. We do not tolerate misuse of our products against civil rights activists, journalists or any innocent person. If there is suspicion of misuse, we investigate it and take the appropriate actions, including suspending or terminating a contract.”
Earlier this week, Haaretz reported that NSO negotiated a multi-million-dollar deal with Saudi Arabia to sell its Pegasus 3 software, without saying if a deal was eventually closed.
The kingdom’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has drawn harsh criticism from rights groups over the targeting of human rights activists and political dissidents across the spectrum since his appointment in June 2017. Dozens of Saudi citizens have been convicted on charges linked to dissent under a previous sweeping law, particularly linked to posts on Twitter.
Earlier this month, fugitive NSA leaker Edward Snowden slammed Israel’s burgeoning cyber-surveillance industry, singling out the NSO Group for his harshest criticism.
Speaking to a group of Israeli journalists via videolink from Moscow, Snowden suggested a link between the murder last month of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, and Saudi use of NSO Group’s Pegasus software.
“How did they know what his intentions were? How did they decide he was someone they needed to act against — that he was worth the risk?” Snowden asked.
In August, The New York Times reported that two lawsuits brought against NSO have uncovered documents showing that the company and its affiliates have actively engaged in illegal activities for clients.
The two lawsuits, filed in Israel and Cyprus, call for company accountability for what they claim is an active role in illegal intelligence gathering. The lawsuits were filed by a Qatari individual who claims to have been targeted by the UAE, as well as by Mexican human rights activists who say the government spied on them using Pegasus.
To sell Pegasus to the UAE, the newspaper noted, the company would have had to receive the express permission of the Defense Ministry, as such software is considered a weapon.
In 2016, the Yedioth Ahronoth daily first reported that the Defense Ministry had given the NSO Group permission to sell the software to an Arab company, which went on to target a prominent UAE rights activist. But the scope of the government’s involvement had not been known.
Israeli companies have been criticized in the past for selling software to monitor internet and phone communication to regimes with poor human rights records, including in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, as well as Colombia, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda, Panama and Mexico, according to the NGO Privacy International.
Agencies contributed to this report.