Mexico president denies spying on critics after Pegasus allegations

Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador holds a news conference, at the National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico September 30, 2022. REUTERS/Henry Romero

MEXICO CITY, Oct 4 (Reuters) - Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador denied on Tuesday that his administration spied on journalists or opponents after a report that the phones of at least three people investigating human rights abuses were infected with Pegasus spyware.

Digital watchdog Citizen Labsaid on Sunday it had found that phones belonging to two journalists and a human rights activist were infected with Pegasus between 2019 and 2021.

Lopez Obrador won office in 2018 after an election campaign in which he pledged to put an end to the government spying on its citizens and later said he would not use Pegasus.

Pegasus belongs to Israeli spyware firm NSO Group, which typically only sells the software to governments or law enforcement.

When asked whether he knew about the purchase of Pegasus, which can be used to remotely break into phones, Lopez Obrador said: "It's not true that journalists or opponents are spied on."

The military carried out intelligence work, which was "not spying," he told a news conference, accusing adversaries of using the Pegasus allegations to discredit his government.

"My doctrine isn't hypocrisy, like the former administrations you all applaud," he told reporters.

The use of Pegasus by Mexico was previously detected by Citizen Lab in 2017 under former President Enrique Pena Nieto, sparking alarm about monitoring of politicians, journalists, activists and critics of the government.

Mexico's Defense Ministry said later on Tuesday it had contracted Pegasus services from June 2011 to August 2013, and denied allegations of spying.

Pegasus was used only to maintain the safety and operating capacity of the armed forces through intelligence work, the ministry said in a statement.

The army's intelligence work overall is geared at arresting criminal leaders, finding drug production facilities, confiscating guns and other matters of public safety, it added.

"This Ministry… does not carry out intelligence activities, much less espionage of any kind, against sectors of the population such as human rights defenders, social activists and journalists," the statement said.

The latest three alleged victims of Pegasus filed a complaint with federal prosecutors on Monday calling for a criminal probe. Lopez Obrador asked for evidence to be turned over to authorities.

The infections were verified by Citizen Lab, a leading cybersecurity research group at the University of Toronto and published in a report by Mexican digital rights advocacy group R3D. Reuters could not independently confirm the findings.

Israel's NSO Group said it could not validate Citizen Lab's analysis without seeing data that it said the research group does not share. It noted it terminates contracts when it finds wrongdoing.

Mexico's Attorney General's Office said it did not have information about the case.

Reporting by Kylie Madry, Sarah Morland, Daina Beth Solomon and Lizbeth Diaz, Valentine Hilaire; Editing by Dave Graham, Lisa Shumaker and Raju Gopalakrishnan

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