A screenshot of MCCI coverage of the May 6 cyberattack on their website.
A screenshot of MCCI coverage of the May 6 cyberattack on their website.

Mexican anti-corruption news website MCCI hit with cyberattack

New York, May 10, 2019–The Committee to Protect Journalists today condemned a cyberattack on Mexicanos Contra La Corrupción y Impunidad (MCCI), a Mexican nonprofit news outlet that publishes in-depth investigations into corruption in Mexico and Latin America.

Unidentified attackers limited the site’s functionality for nearly 13 hours on May 6, and temporarily replaced some content on the homepage, according to a statement by the MCCI.

“Cyberattacks deprive the public of vital sources of public information, and defacing an outlet’s website makes it more difficult for journalists who are trying to uncover wrongdoing to do their job,” Jan-Albert Hootsen, Mexico representative for CPJ, said. “We urge authorities to thoroughly and credibly investigate, do all they can to find those responsible, and hold them to account.”

The MCCI website’s host server was flooded with requests characteristic of a denial-of-service attack, which seeks to overload a site with traffic in order to prevent other people from viewing it, the group said. They successfully mitigated that problem, only to see the website’s entire content deleted minutes later, they said. After they restored it, attackers briefly replaced the most prominent content on the homepage with images of a crashed helicopter and two Mexican politicians who were killed in a helicopter accident in December 2018, according to the MCCI, which then fully restored the website.

“We don’t know if this is a signal, or a message,” Darío Ramírez, MCCI director general for communications, told CPJ, noting that the attack was sophisticated enough to require significant resources. There are a “wide range” of potential adversaries who could have launched the attack, he said, given the organization’s recent reporting on corruption in the pharmaceutical and cement industries, among other topics. The images referencing the helicopter crash replaced links to a recent report investigating allegations of government agencies awarding contracts to shell companies, the MCCI statement said. The outlet called on Mexico’s Federal Special Prosecutor for Attention to Crimes Committed against Freedom of Expression (FEADLE) to investigate the attack.

Danya Centeno, a senior attorney with the Mexican digital rights organization R3D, told CPJ that the attack underscored the gravity of digital threats facing journalists in Mexico. “It demonstrates, once again, the importance of public policies to increase the protection of journalism in Mexico to address the attacks that are committed against it in the digital environment,” she said.

In 2017, Citizen Lab researchers at the University of Toronto reported that three MCCI staffers had received messages attempting to trick them into installing Pegasus, advanced spyware sold by the Israeli firm NSO Group, on their phones.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The spelling of Danya Centeno’s name was corrected in the sixth paragraph.