Sunday Dec 04, 2022

The Battle for the World’s Most Powerful Cyberweapon – The New York Times


The Mexico example revealed both the promise and the perils of working with NSO. In 2017, researchers at Citizen Lab, a watchdog group based at the University of Toronto, reported that authorities in Mexico had used Pegasus to hack the accounts of advocates for a soda tax, as part of a broader campaign aimed at human rights activists, political opposition movements and journalists. More disturbing, it appeared that someone in the government had used Pegasus to spy on lawyers working to untangle the massacre of 43 students in Iguala in 2014. Tomás Zerón de Lucio, the chief of the Mexican equivalent to the F.B.I., was a main author of the federal government’s version of the event, which concluded that the students were killed by a local gang. But in 2016 he became the subject of an investigation himself, on suspicion that he had covered up federal involvement in the events there. Now it appeared that he might have used Pegasus in that effort — one of his official duties was to sign off on the procurement of cyberweapons and other equipment. In March 2019, soon after Andrés Manuel López Obrador replaced Peña Nieto after a landslide election, investigators charged that Zerón had engaged in torture, abduction and tampering with evidence in relation to the Iguala massacre. Zerón fled to Canada and then to Israel, where he entered the country as a tourist, and where — despite an extradition request from Mexico, which is now seeking him on additional charges of embezzlement — he remains today.

The American reluctance to share intelligence was creating other opportunities for NSO, and for Israel. In August 2009, Panama’s new president, Ricardo Martinelli, fresh off a presidential campaign grounded on promises of “eliminating political corruption,” tried to persuade U.S. diplomats in the country to give him surveillance equipment to spy on “security threats as well as political opponents,” according to a State Department cable published by WikiLeaks. The United States “will not be party to any effort to expand wiretaps to domestic political targets,” the deputy chief of mission replied.

Martinelli tried a different approach. In early 2010, Panama was one of only six countries at the U.N. General Assembly to back Israel against a resolution to keep the Goldstone Commission report on war crimes committed during the 2008-9 Israeli assault on Gaza on the international agenda. A week after the vote, Martinelli landed in Tel Aviv on one of his first trips outside Latin America. Panama will always stand with Israel, he told the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, in appreciation of “its guardianship of the capital of the world — Jerusalem.” He said he and his entourage of ministers, businesspeople and Jewish community leaders had come to Israel to learn. “We came a great distance, but we are very close because of the Jewish heart of Panama,” he said.

Behind closed doors, Martinelli used his trip to go on a surveillance shopping spree. In a private meeting with Netanyahu, the two men discussed the military and intelligence equipment that Martinelli wanted to buy from Israeli vendors. According to one person who attended the meeting, Martinelli was particularly interested in the ability to hack into BlackBerry’s BBM text service, which was very popular in Panama at that time.

Within two years, Israel was able to offer him one of the most sophisticated tools yet made. After …….


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