At first glance, the text messages looked innocuous enough. One was a simple “service message,” the sort you might get from your cellular provider, with a link to more information.
Another was more serious; the person who sent it said their father had died, and included a link to “dates for the wake.”
But had Karla Michelle Salas or David Pena clicked on either of those links, their iPhones would have been directed to a specially crafted webpage designed to silently infect their devices with powerful surveillance software. Once in place, the attackers would have unfettered access to their targets’ contacts, messages, phone calls and more.
The spyware was developed by an Israeli company called NSO Group, a secretive dealer of so-called “cyber arms.” It was no coincidence that Salas and Pena, both Mexican lawyers, found the spyware attempting to worm its way into their phones.
According to a new report from researchers at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, released today, both Salas and Pena appear to have been targeted because of their roles investigating suspicious execution-style killings in Mexico, in what has become a disturbing trend among activists, journalists, lawyers and even scientists who similarly oppose or criticize the country’s government.
In recent months, Citizen Lab has publicly identified 21 cases in Mexico where NSO spyware has been used against members of civil society.
And while there is still no definitive proof that the Mexican government is behind the attacks, the government — and its attorney general’s office in particular — is a known client of the Israeli surveillance firm. The government was sold the software on the condition it only be used during national security and criminal investigations, and has “categorically” denied any accusations of misuse.
“There needs to be accountability; there needs to be institutional reform and institutional consequences for these type of attacks,” said Luis Fernando Garcia, executive director of Mexican digital rights group R3D, which has called for an independent investigation free of government interference.
“If we enter an arms race between civil society and government, definitely the government will win.”