Leaders of one of Mexico's top opposition parties were targeted with spyware sold to the government, researchers said Thursday, adding to a snowballing scandal over spying on journalists, activists and other public figures.
The leader of the conservative National Action Party (PAN), Ricardo Anaya; PAN senator Roberto Gil Zuarth; and party spokesman Fernando Rodriguez Doval all received text messages inviting them to click on a link that would have secretly installed a highly invasive spyware on their cell phones, said researchers at the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab.
The research lab was among the groups that previously found the same spyware on the phones of leading journalists, anti-corruption activists and human rights campaigners.
Based on those findings, nine victims pressed charges against the government on June 19, accusing it of violating their privacy with a tool meant to be used to fight terrorists and criminals.
The government denies the charges and has ordered the attorney general's office to investigate.
The spyware, known as Pegasus, effectively turns a target's cell phone into a pocket spy, enabling remote access to the user's data, camera and microphone.
It is made by a secretive Israeli firm called NSO Group, owned by US private equity firm Francisco Partners Management.
According to the New York Times, which first broke the story, at least three Mexican federal agencies have purchased some $80 million of spyware from NSO Group since 2011.
Citizen Lab says it has now documented 18 cases of spying or attempted spying on investigative journalists, anti-corruption activists, human rights campaigners, opposition politicians and public health advocates who pushed for Mexico's 2014 soda tax.
The targets all report receiving text messages with eye-catching news headlines, social media posts or personal communications.
The PAN leaders received the messages in June and July last year.
"It may be relevant that during this particular timeframe, anti-corruption legislation was being discussed in Congress," Citizen Lab said in a statement.
The PAN held the Mexican presidency from 2000 to 2012 -- breaking 71 years of uninterrupted rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Current President Enrique Pena Nieto ushered the PRI back to power five years ago.