The targeted individuals include some of Mexico's most prominent journalists, the minor child of one of them, plus employees of two civil society organizations.
Those claiming to be targeted by the software included Carmen Aristegui, a journalist who in 2014 helped reveal that President Enrique Peña Nieto's wife had acquired a house from a major government contractor, as well as Carlos Loret de Mola, a journalist at leading television network Televisa.
The spyware, known as Pegasus, is manufactured by an Israeli firm called the NSO Group and is sold exclusively to governments.
The messages would prompt users to click on a link that would secretly install the spyware on their phones.
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"Once infected, a phone becomes a digital spy in the pocket of a victim", according to Citizen Lab. Pegasus allows spyware operators to record audio, take pictures and monitor all activities of the infected device, including calls and messages sent through end-to-end-encrypted applications.
"And if you're the kind of government that is going to misuse the software, the likelihood of you doing a robust internal investigation and then telling on yourself is even lower". "[The software] can turn on your microphone and listen to your conversations, it can turn on your video camera and film you".
A group of Mexican journalists, lawyers and politicians yesterday filed a petition against the Mexican government after it was found to be spying on them using an Israeli programme, Ma'an reported Hebrew websites saying today.
"As in any democratic government, to combat crime and threats against national security, the Mexican government carries out intelligence operations", it said in a statement to the Times, adding that the government "categorically denies that any of its members engages in surveillance or communications operations against defenders of human rights, journalists, anti-corruption activists or any other person without prior judicial authorization". "It constitutes a form of control over the flow of information and abuse of power".
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Pena Nieto's office responded with a letter to the editor of the New York Times.
The Mexican government's use of spyware has been questioned before, but the New York Times noted that "there is no ironclad proof that the Mexican government is responsible" for the reported spying incidents. The practice is now spreading to activists and journalists, he said, as movements in favour of human rights and stopping graft gain ground.
Frank Smyth, executive director of the United States group Global Journalist Security, called Citizen Lab's report a reminder of the perils that spyware represents in an increasingly wired world.
"We are the new enemies of the state", he said.
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