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When the military spies on citizens' phones

2023-03-16T14:19:28.792Z


The NSO group, maker of the Pegasus spyware, has sold its tool to both democratic and autocratic countries around the world.


Tech companies like

Meta and Apple

sell users the promise of privacy.

They claim that encrypting their smartphones and apps will keep user data safe.

But there is a powerful form of spyware, called

Pegasus

, that we know can get past it.

This tool allows remote access to almost everything on a device, including the microphone, camera, and location data.

Human rights defender Raymundo Ramos, in Mexico City.

(Marian Carrasquero/The New York Times)

You've probably heard of him:

Governments have been using it in high-profile cases for more than a decade.

But the extent of that spying has been

difficult to trace.

The maker of Pegasus doesn't reveal who its customers are, and it's hard to tell if a phone has been infected with it.

It has also not been clear what information authorities are looking for on a device, until last week, when my colleagues Natalie Kitroeff and Ronen Bergman reported that the

Mexican military

was spying on citizens trying to report their crimes.

The case offers a rare glimpse into the mechanics of how, exactly, governments can misuse Pegasus.

His reporting also illuminates critical details about the state of Mexican democracy at a time of civil unrest.

Below, Natalie explains why this case is so significant, and what it means for the country.

Lauren: Hi, Natalie.

Worried that the Mexican military might be listening in on your phone?

Natalie: My phone is checked every few days for Pegasus.

But we haven't found anything yet.

Let's take a step back.

How have governments around the world been using Pegasus?

Both democratic and autocratic countries have purchased the tool from NSO Group, an Israeli company.

The company says it requires its customers to agree to use the spyware only to fight terrorism or serious crime.

And there are examples of this:

For example, European investigators have used it to dismantle a

global network of child abuse.

But reports have revealed that, time and again, governments have also used it to spy on journalists, activists and human rights defenders.

The Mexican government also used Pegasus to capture the drug lord known as

El Chapo

.

So we know that the government has used spyware in the past.

What's new in this story?

The Mexican government has been implicated for years in scandals involving the use of Pegasus, including

spying on journalists

and activists.

That is not new.

What is new is that we definitely know how the military is spying on civilians.

A group of hackers calling themselves the Guacamaya have hacked into millions of military emails and unearthed an absolutely staggering amount of data.

Among all those documents were these newly discovered files, which reveal the details of how Mexico used Pegasus against a human rights defender and journalists investigating allegations that soldiers had shot innocent people to death.

It's a big problem for Mexico, but can you explain what this means for our understanding of spyware use in general?

This case offers for the first time a clear documentary trail of what a state agent, in this case the Mexican military, wanted to see on the phone of a human rights defender.

It is an extraordinary document.

A researcher explained it to me like this:

It shows us how spyware operators took this person's private digital life, dumped it all on the table, and then picked out the parts that were most damaging to him.

This news comes at a time of political turmoil for the country.

Citizens in more than 100 cities recently protested against the government's review of a major electoral watchdog.

What does this reveal about the Mexican government right now?

The president of Mexico,

Andrés Manuel López Obrador

, came to office in 2018 on a wave of discontent.

He lashed out at corruption and vowed not to spy on people.

This shows that government espionage has continued under his administration.

Since he is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, he also suggests that he either knew of this espionage and tolerated it, or he did not, and his own armed forces were disobeying him.

This has raised growing fears about the growing power of the military.

The news has also broken at a time when López Obrador's relationship with democratic norms and institutions is being questioned around the world, but especially in the

United States.

This revelation offers the United States a concrete example of how its ally and neighbor acts in an undemocratic way.

Will Washington do something in response?

Washington has been wondering:

What is the proper role of the military in a democratic country?

The kidnapping of four Americans in Mexico this month has only increased their general concern for the country's stability.

But the United States also needs Mexico very much.

The Biden administration has been reluctant to publicly criticize the Mexican government because officials fear threatening cooperation on migration.

It is a tense time for Mexican democracy and shows how spyware purchased by democratic countries can potentially be misused as certain factions within the government, in this case the military, gain more power.

We still do not know what impact this series of revelations, and others that may come, will have on the Mexican government.

But I don't think we should write it off as something that could leave a more lasting mark on this administration.

c.2023 The New York Times Company

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