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By Michael O'Boyle
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Three senior opposition officials in Mexico, including a party leader, were targeted with spying software sold to governments to fight criminals and terrorists, according to a report by researchers at the University of Toronto.
The officials, who included conservative National Action Party (PAN) head Ricardo Anaya, received text messages linked to spyware known as Pegasus, which Israeli company NSO Group only sells to governments, according to the report by Citizen Lab released on Thursday.
Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto has asked the attorney general's office to investigate charges that the government spied on private citizens, saying he wanted to get to the bottom of the accusations that he called "false."
Last week, Citizen Lab, a group of researchers at the University of Toronto's Munk School, identified 12 activists, human-rights lawyers and journalists who had also seen attempts to infect their phones with the powerful spyware.
John Scott-Railton, one of a group of researchers at Citizen Lab who have spent five years tracking the use of such spyware by governments against civilians, said Mexico's case was notable for the number of targets and the intensity of efforts.
"What we have already provided, in our prior reporting, is strong circumstantial evidence implicating the government of Mexico," he said in an interview.
Anaya, PAN Senator Roberto Gil Zuarth and Fernando Rodriguez, the PAN's communications secretary, received infectious messages in June 2016, when lawmakers were discussing anti-corruption legislation, the report said.
"That the government spies, invading the privacy of people in this magnitude, is absolutely unacceptable," Anaya said in a statement. "We will not rest until those responsible have resigned, are prosecuted and imprisoned."
The report was published on Citizen Lab's website: http://bit.ly/2sl8UiH.
Two Mexican TV stations late Wednesday cited a leaked document that showed the attorney general's office paid over $32 million for the software in October 2014. It was installed the following month, when Arely Gomez, formerly a ruling party senator, had just become attorney general.
On Thursday, Gomez, who is now Mexico's comptroller general, said the use of the software "was always done according to the law." The president's office said in a statement that the technology was exclusively used against organised crime and national security threats, and only with court authorization.
The spying allegations have added to problems facing Pena Nieto, whose popularity has waned due to rising violence and widespread corruption.
Among the previous targets Citizen Lab identified were Carmen Aristegui, a journalist who in 2014 helped reveal that Pena Nieto's wife had acquired a house from a major government contractor, as well as lawyers representing the families of 43 students who disappeared and were apparently massacred in 2014.
At least nine of the people who were targeted filed charges with authorities on June 19. On June 22, Pena Nieto promised a thorough investigation and insisted that Mexico was a democracy that tolerated critical voices.
The president's office said in its latest statement that any new allegations would be added to the current investigation.
(Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Andrew Hay)