Monday, July 24, 2017
Spyware Scandal is a Gift for Organized Crime
By Patrick Corcoran (InSight Crime)
Recent revelations about
the government of Mexico's widespread use of spyware to monitor adversaries in the press and the human rights community represent a gift for organized
The New York Times first reported in June that Mexican journalists, lawyers, human-rights activists and their families had been targeted by government-owned
spyware, which would allow eavesdroppers to monitor virtually all aspects of their digital communications. Those targeted include Carmen Aristegui, a prominent journalist; Juan Pardinas, the director of the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness; and the team of international experts heading the inquiry into the disappearance of 43 students in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, in 2014.
The computer program reportedly used deceptive and highly personalized messages to lure targets into activating the
spyware. These include contaminated links purporting to deal with a visa issue, claims of proof that a spouse was having an
affair, and warnings about a commando squad outside a target's house.
According to the Times, NSO Group, the Israeli company
that manufactures the software, sold it to the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto under the condition that
it be deployed only against terrorists and criminal groups. The government has not confirmed that it used the software to
target the reporters and activists, but experts have been virtually unanimous in declaring government agencies the only plausible
authors of the hacking.
Even in a country where private surveillance scandals are relatively commonplace, this episode appears to have crossed
a line, sparking widespread outcry. The reports have also provoked calls for investigations of the hacking, which would determine
the identities of all the targets, who carried out the operation, what authorization they had, and how long it had been going
InSight Crime Analysis
This latest scandal from the Peña Nieto administration represents a massive self-inflicted
wound in its fight against organized crime.
Most immediately, the revelations give criminal groups an invaluable window into the
government's anti-crime operations. At the very least, this is a warning to drug traffickers as well as their lawyers,
money launderers and business partners to avoid electronic communications, and to be on guard against phishing attempts. While
all but the most naive criminal groups were already aware of the government's capacity to monitor cell phone communications,
the reporting gives gangs a precise outline of agencies' capacity and tactics.
For more sophisticated organizations, knowledge of the
identity of the company behind the Pegasus software, and the details about the software itself, could provide clues that allow
it to be countered. The exposure of the Peña Nieto administration's activities is akin to telling an adversary
not only where an imminent attack is to come, but also detailing the makeup of the invading force.
The government has also presented criminal groups with
a major public relations coup by ceding the moral high ground. Security strategy in many parts of Mexico often boils down to convincing locals to support the government forces and deny entrenched criminal organizations the space
they need to operate. This, in turn, requires that local citizens view the government as a legitimate and preferable alternative
to domination by criminal gangs.
Allegations that the government resorts to authoritarian practices – whether preying on civilian populations or spying on them – thwarts this objective. The current scandal undermines the government's claims to inherent
legitimacy, instead showing that state actors are as likely to abuse their power as are criminal groups. If the official bodies
act like crime groups, then citizens cannot be blamed for withdrawing their cooperation.
See also: Mexico News and Profiles
spying reports, which reflect an extensive and labor-intensive surveillance operation, also reveal a fundamentally unsound
approach to crime policy. There is inevitably a sense of tension between the government and its critics in the media and human
rights community. But a mature, truly democratic administration would recognize that the media is not an enemy. On the contrary,
a well-informed society with access to an aggressive free press serves as a bulwark against criminal takeovers of state agencies.
The fact that the Peña Nieto administration appears not to recognize this not only reveals its authoritarian tendencies,
but also explains its inability to make significant headway on Mexico's security challenges.
A government that expends such resources to spy on the media and on human rights activists is one that is comfortable
wasting time and effort. It is one that cannot distinguish friend from foe, and is clueless in its handling of public opinion.
It is one that is unable to adhere to democratic principles while attacking organized crime, and allows itself to sink to
the moral level of its criminal adversaries.
This is but one more piece of evidence pointing to the Peña Nieto administration's
wrongheaded approach to Mexico's security problems.
This commentary was first published in InSight Crime and reposted per a Creative Commons authorization. InSight Crime's objective is to increase
the level of research, analysis and investigation on organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Patrick Corcoran is a graduate of the University of Tennessee and received an MA from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced