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Spyware targeted proponents of Mexico's soda tax. There are worries the government used spy tools to fight policy changes. Photo: Mike Mozart/Flickr

The Mexico's Soda Tax Guerrillas

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Surveillance-oriented spyware and mobile hacking can be a powerful tool for extortion, not only in the hands of governments and the military. The New York Times has learned that someone used commercial spyware from Israeli encryption company NSO Group to target proponents of Mexico's soda tax, including researchers and activists, right as they were rallying support for doubling the tax.

The attackers sent personalized messages that warned of bogus news (say, a daughter's accident) and urged the victims to tap a link. If they did, the hostile would infect their devices and track everything from messages to location. It'd even quietly record camera footage.

Mobile hacking has been addressed mainly to researchers and health activists who supported Mexico's 2014 soda tax. It is aimed at reducing consumption of sugary drinks in Mexico, where weight-related diseases kill more people every year than violent crime. 

That's the case of Dr. Simón Barquera, director of nutrition policy at Mexico’s National Institute of Public Health. According to the The New York Times, Dr. Barquera's phone started buzzing with a series of disturbing text messages from unknown numbers. One said his daughter had been in a serious accident. Another claimed to be from a friend whose father had died — with a link to funeral details.

The links sent to the men were laced with an invasive form of spyware developed by NSO Group, an Israeli cyberarms dealer that sells its digital spy tools exclusively to governments and that has contracts with multiple agencies inside Mexico.

The soda industry has poured over $67 million into defeating state and local efforts to regulate soft drink sales in the United States since 2009, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. But the tax in Mexico — Coca-Cola’s biggest consumer market by per capita consumption — posed an exceptional threat. After the tax passed in 2014, Coca-Cola pledged $8.2 billion worth of investments in Mexico through 2020. And soda giants have lobbied against the tax through various industry groups, like ConMéxico, which represents Coca-Cola and PepsiCo.

As reported in The New York Times.

 

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