Mexico arrests businessman over use of Israeli Pegasus spyware

Mexico (QNN)- Mexican prosecutors said on Monday they have arrested a businessman on charges of using Israeli pegasus spyware to spy on a journalist.

Mexico had the largest list — about 15,000 phone numbers — among more than 50,000 reportedly selected by Israeli spyware firm NSO Group clients for potential surveillance.

Federal prosecutors announced the arrest on Monday, but did not name the suspect under rules aimed at protecting presumption of innocence.

A federal official not authorized to be quoted by name said the suspect is Juan Carlos García Rivera, who has been linked to the company Proyectos y Diseños VME and Grupo KBH. He was detained on November 1.

In July, Mexico’s top security official said two previous administrations spent $61 million to buy Pegasus spyware. The two companies the suspect was linked to were allegedly parties to some of the contracts.

Leopoldo Maldonado, of the press freedom group Article 19, said the detention was the first arrest in Mexico linked to the Pegasus spyware scandal.

García Rivera is “a technical employee of a private company that was an intermediary for NSO in Mexico, and benefitted from illegal spying on public figures,” Maldonado said, adding “but that does not represent the end of those responsible.”

Public Safety Secretary Rosa Icela Rodríguez said in July that records had been found of 31 contracts signed during the administrations of President Felipe Calderón in 2006-2012 and President Enrique Peña Nieto in 2012-2018. Some contracts may have been disguised as purchases of other equipment.

The government said many of the contracts with NSO Group were signed with front companies, which are often used in Mexico to facilitate kickbacks or avoid taxes.

Last week, the government’s top anti-money laundering investigator said officials from the two previous administrations had spent about $300 million in government money to purchase spyware. But that figure may reflect all spyware and surveillance purchases, or may include yet-unidentified contracts.

Santiago Nieto, the head of Mexico’s Financial Intelligence Unit, said the bills for programs like the Pegasus spyware appear to have included excess payments that may have been channeled back to government officials as kickbacks.

Nieto said the amounts paid, and the way they were paid, suggested government corruption in an already questionable telephone tapping program that targeted journalists, activists and opposition figures, who at the time included now President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his inner circle.

López Obrador took office on December 1, 2018, and vowed never to use spyware. Nieto said no transactions had been detected in the current administration.

From a list of more than 50,000 cellphone numbers obtained by the Paris-based journalism nonprofit Forbidden Stories and the human rights group Amnesty International and shared with 16 news organizations, journalists were able to identify more than 1,000 individuals in 50 countries who were allegedly selected by NSO clients for potential surveillance.

They include 189 journalists, more than 600 politicians and government officials, at least 65 business executives, 85 human rights activists and several heads of state, according to The Washington Post, a consortium member.

The journalists work for organizations including The Associated Press, Reuters, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Le Monde and The Financial Times.

Amnesty also reported that its forensic researchers had determined that NSO Group’s flagship Pegasus spyware was successfully installed on the phone of Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, just four days after he was killed in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

The Guardian, another consortium member, reported that Amnesty had found traces of Pegasus infections on the cellphones of 15 journalists who let their phones be examined after discovering their number was in the leaked data.

The most numbers on the list, 15,000, were for Mexican phones, with a large share in the Middle East.

NSO Group’s spyware has been implicated in targeted surveillance chiefly in the Middle East and Mexico.

Last week, the U.S. Commerce Department said NSO Group and three other firms are being added to the “entity list,” which limits their access to U.S. components and technology by requiring government permission for exports.

The department said putting these companies on the entity list was part of the Biden administration’s efforts to promote human rights in U.S. foreign policy.

“The United States is committed to aggressively using export controls to hold companies accountable that develop, traffic, or use technologies to conduct malicious activities that threaten the cybersecurity of members of civil society, dissidents, government officials, and organizations here and abroad,” U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo said in a statement.

(Source / 11.11.2021)

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