Digital Surveillance in Mexico: New Tricks, Same Old Strategies

Alex Argüelles

By Alex Argüelles | Dec. 4, 2020 | Fellowships & Awards

Alex Argüelles is a Mozilla Fellow based in Mexico City.


On December 1st, Citizen Lab released its newest report: “Running in Circles”. In this document, revelations on some of the worldwide clients of the Cyberspionage firm Circles (affiliated to the infamous NSO Group) pointed out Mexico’s government as the owner of the highest number of systems developed for exploiting weaknesses in mobile phones to snoop on calls, texts, and their locations.

Even though these revelations shed a light on new abusive (and illegal) methods the Mexican government use to exploit the digital vulnerabilities of journalists, activists, human rights defenders, and the general population in the country; this case only adds up to other series of documented forms of political violence through a wide range of tech-related strategies that have been previously exposed and publicly denounced with a report published in 2017 under the name #GobiernoEspía.

The unrelenting efforts of Mexican NGOs -such as R3D, SocialTIC, and Article19 MX-CA- achieved the interest of local and international media outlets by demanding justice to the increasing number of people targeted in these attacks, and even joining a couple of collective lawsuits against NSO Group in Cyprus and Israel.

Three years after #GobiernoEspía’s release, with the Circles’ revelation, we are reminded of the disregard with which human rights continue to be violated in Mexico: a country worldwide known for its high levels of violence against journalists, women, the LGBTTTIQ+ community, indigenous peoples, rural communities, or anyone who stands up for human rights and their defense. A country that won’t hesitate to harass anyone who takes action against the abuses of power on behalf of the State, the organized crime, and the impunity of international enterprises that exploit our people and territory.

In 2019, Sursiendo -a grassroots NGO working in Mexico’s Southern border- published a summary of the digital surveillance methods used by the Mexican government between 2010 and 2018. In this document, beyond NSO Group’s Pesagus -the spyware that was exposed in #GobiernoEspía- there is also mention to a couple of previously identified espionage technologies used by the Mexican government: FinFisher (during 2011–2012), and Galileo (during 2013–2015); both Hacking Team’s products that were used on behalf of government officials and by the Mexican Army.

Needless to say, none of the cases documented in Sursiendo’s summary nor the more than twenty known victims of Pegasus that were revealed in #GobiernoEspía’s report have found justice in a corrupt system that makes impunity prevail.

I would’ve liked to end this note here, however, it would be a useless effort if at least I didn’t try to raise awareness on the other -even lesser-known- ways in which the current Mexican government continues to diminish our human rights through the large-scale implementation of surveillance mechanisms, facial recognition technologies, and the sustained deployment of IMSI catchers in the public space all across the country, from border to border: against any hope of civil organization, and to reinforce the chilling effects already gained by the militarization of our streets.

In Mexico Civil society is under attack and with it all activists, human rights defenders, journalist, and social organizers that keep fighting for a better, fairer future. This has been a reality for many years, and many people have lost their lives standing up against it. Now we are driven by their testimonies, fights, and courage in pursuing the paths to justice they’ve opened and shared with us. Now have the possibility to understand and use technologies as tools against the control-thirst-driven politicians running our country; to spread awareness, share knowledge, and build resistance.

Today things, though not so hopeful, are different: we are learning, we are reaching out to everyone interested in transforming what seems an unstoppable one-way ride to dystopia. Wherever you are, join us. Let’s shift this together.

This is an invitation. We will take our power back.