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Facebook: Chinese hackers tried to break into Uighur Muslims’ phones, computers

During routine security work, social media giant identifies network of hackers using suspicious links and fake websites; under 500 people targeted

FILE: A guard tower and barbed wire fence surround a detention facility in the Kunshan Industrial Park in Artux in western China's Xinjiang region. The Associated Press found that the Chinese government was carrying out a birth control program aimed at Uighurs, Kazakhs and other largely Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, even as some of the country's Han majority was encouraged to have more children. The measures included detention in prisons and camps, such as this facility in Artux, as punishment for having too many children, Dec. 3, 2018. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File)
FILE: A guard tower and barbed wire fence surround a detention facility in the Kunshan Industrial Park in Artux in western China's Xinjiang region. The Associated Press found that the Chinese government was carrying out a birth control program aimed at Uighurs, Kazakhs and other largely Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, even as some of the country's Han majority was encouraged to have more children. The measures included detention in prisons and camps, such as this facility in Artux, as punishment for having too many children, Dec. 3, 2018. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File)

Hackers in China used fake accounts and impostor websites to try to break into the computers and smartphones of Uighur Muslims, Facebook announced Wednesday.

The company said the sophisticated, covert operation targeted Uighur activists, journalists and dissidents from China’s Xinjiang region, as well as individuals living in Turkey, Kazakhstan, the US, Syria, Australia, Canada and other nations.

The hackers attempted to gain access to the computers and phones by creating fake Facebook accounts for supposed journalists and activists, as well as fake websites and apps intended to appeal to a Uighur audience. In some cases, the hackers created lookalike websites almost identical to legitimate news sites popular with Uighurs.

The accounts and sites contained malicious links; if the target clicked on one, their computer or smartphone would be infected with software allowing the network to spy on the target’s device.

An iPhone displays the Facebook app, August 11, 2019. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane, File)

In all, fewer than 500 people were targeted, Facebook said. The company said it uncovered the network during its routine security work, and has deactivated the fictitious accounts and notified individuals whose devices may have been compromised. Most of the hackers’ activities took place on non-Facebook sites and platforms.

“They tried to create these personas, build trust in the community, and use that as a way to trick people into clicking on these links to expose their devices,” Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of security policy, told reporters on a conference call Wednesday.

Facebook’s investigation found links between the hackers and two technology firms based in China but no direct links to the Chinese government, which has been criticized for its harsh treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang.

China has imprisoned more than 1 million people, including Uighurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic groups, in a vast network of concentration camps, according to US officials and human rights groups. People have been subjected to torture, sterilization and political indoctrination in addition to forced labor as part of an assimilation campaign in a region whose inhabitants are ethnically and culturally distinct from the Han Chinese majority.

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