July 11 (UPI) -- Canada's Citizen Lab Internet watchdog said government-exclusive spyware targeted international experts investigating the abduction and murder of 43 college students in Mexico.
Citizen Lab said the Pegasus spyware product sold exclusively to governments was created by the NSO Group Israeli company, which is majority owned by the Francisco Partners U.S. private equity firm. Pegasus was designed to track criminals and terrorists.
Mexican journalists, human rights activists and opposition politicians have previously made allegations that Mexican authorities spied on them using Pegasus. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto's government has denied using Pegasus to spy on opponents.
Citizen Lab said it collaborated with Mexican organizations to determine that the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which investigated the disappearance of the missing students, was targeted by Pegasus.
"The international investigation into the 2014 Iguala mass disappearance was targeted with infection attempts using spyware developed by the NSO group, an Israeli 'cyber warfare' company," Citizen Lab said in a statement. "A phone belonging to the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts, a group of investigators from several countries, was sent text messages with links to NSO's exploit infrastructure. The infection attempts took place in early March of 2016, shortly after the GIEI had criticized the Mexican government for interference in their investigation, and as they were preparing their final report."
In September 2014, 43 students from Ayotzinapa traveled to the town of Iguala in Mexico's Guerrero state and clashed with police, who opened fire, investigations revealed. Police then handed the students over to drug gangs. Soldiers were at the scene of the clash and relatives of the missing students believe the soldiers played a role in the disappearances by failing to act.
The students were declared dead and most bodies have not yet been recovered or identified. The investigation into the kidnapping by Mexico's government generated mass criticism as allegations of a coverup permeated.
Citizen Lab said it does not conclusively attribute the infection attempts to the Mexican government but added that "each new case contributes to the already-strong circumstantial evidence that entities within the Mexican government are the responsible party."
"Our published investigations have now confirmed at least 19 individuals targeted with NSO in Mexico, including lawyers, politicians, journalists, anti-corruption activists, scientists, public health campaigners, government officials, and their family members," Citizen Lab added.