Today, Citizen Lab is publishing a new report, entitled “Reckless VII: Wife of Journalist Slain in Cartel-Linked Killing Targeted with NSO Group Spyware.” This report continues our investigation of the abuse of commercial spyware manufactured by Israeli company NSO Group. Working with our partners in Mexico, we are now able to confirm that Griselda Triana, a journalist and the wife of Javier Valdez, a journalist who was assassinated while investigating Mexican cartels, was herself targeted with fake SMS messages in the days after her husband’s murder. The SMS messages she received in May 2017 purported to reveal details about the motive behind the murder, and other upsetting updates. We were able to connect the links in both messages to domains that we can verify were at the time part of NSO Group’s exploit infrastructure. Although she did not click on the links, doing so would have immediately infected her phone with NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, providing the operators complete control of her device. Notably, she was targeted a week after two of Javier’s colleagues were also targeted with Pegasus spyware.
The targeting of Griselda Triana brings the total number of confirmed NSO Group targets in Mexico to 25. NSO Group markets its spyware as a tool strictly limited to government agencies to assist in anti-terror and criminal investigations. None of the 25 targets we identified were criminals or terrorists; rather, they were anti-corruption investigators, advocacy groups, health scientists and researchers, investigators into mass disappearances, and journalists.
NSO Spyware in Mexico: Claims vs Reality
It is notable that NSO Group has bragged about how its Pegasus spyware was used in Mexico to investigate drug cartels and was instrumental in the arrest of El Chapo. However, here we find it was used the other way around: to target individuals who were investigating drug cartels and government corruption. These cases add yet more weight to the mountain of evidence that NSO Group’s surveillance technology is being abused by its clients, and the company is either unwilling or unable to perform the type of due diligence to prevent that from happening.
Tackling The Proliferation of Commercial Spyware
What is to be done about the proliferation and harm caused by commercial spyware such as this? Many point to the need for government regulations, such as tighter export controls. But lacking political will, these are unlikely to be properly enforced. As it stands, NSO Group’s sales are reportedly approved by the Israeli Ministry of Defense, and they did not seem to take issue with the company selling its wares to a rogue’s gallery of autocratic rulers in spite of widespread public reporting of abuse.
Litigation is another avenue that might help bring about reform of companies’ practices. For example, NSO Group is currently embroiled in several lawsuits. Should those succeed and the company is fined or otherwise penalized in a significant manner, ownership groups may decide the liabilities are too steep to continue with business as usual. (As a significant aside, several weeks ago two Citizen Lab staff were targeted by undercover operatives reportedly with links to the Israeli-based private intelligence firm Black Cube. We organized a counter-sting with Associated Press to expose the operation. NSO Group strictly denies it hired Black Cube (if indeed it was them), and we have no solid evidence linking them to the operation. However, the operatives asked us about our research on the spyware vendor and they also attempted to entrap four other individuals around the world all of whom happen to be linked by their involvement in litigation against NSO.)
Communications with NSO Group
We have communicated several times to NSO Group, its previous majority owner, Francisco Partners, and the new ownership group who is seeking to acquire NSO Group, Novalpina Capital, led by Mr. Stephen Peel. The new group has made public statements espousing principles of corporate social responsibility, and has pledged to steer NSO Group sales according to the UN Guiding Principles of Business and Human Rights. However, they have systematically failed to acknowledge the numerous cases of abuse that we and others, including Amnesty International, have identified. Until they do so, these pledges will sound like the same old empty promises that NSO Group, and other spyware companies, have made in the past about “ethics committees” and other oversight mechanisms that allegedly review sales and prevent abuse. It is long past due to turn words into deeds, to acknowledge the facts and undertake real reform to prevent harm.