SAN FRANCISCO (AFP) — Facebook parent company Meta announced Thursday the shutdown of some 1,500 accounts tied to “cyber mercenary” companies accused of spying on activists, dissidents, and journalists worldwide on behalf of paying clients.
The Facebook and Instagram pages were linked to seven firms, with services allegedly ranging from scooping up public information online to using fake personas to build trust with targets or digital snooping via hack attacks.
Meta unveiled plans to alert about 50,000 people it believes may have been targeted in over 100 nations by firms that include several based or founded in Israel, which is a leading player in the cyber-surveillance industry.
“The surveillance-for-hire industry… looks like indiscriminate targeting on behalf of the highest bidder,” Nathaniel Gleicher, head of security policy at Facebook, told a press briefing.
The leading social media network said it deleted accounts tied to Cobwebs Technologies, Cognyte, Black Cube, and Bluehawk CI — all of which were based or founded in Israel.
India-based BellTroX, North Macedononian firm Cytrox and an unidentified entity in China also saw accounts linked to them removed from Meta platforms.
“These cyber mercenaries often claim that their services only target criminals and terrorists,” said a Meta statement.
“Targeting is in fact indiscriminate and includes journalists, dissidents, critics of authoritarian regimes, families of opposition members and human rights activists,” it added.
Unnamed Chinese operation
Firms selling “web intelligence services” start the surveillance process by gathering information from publicly available online sources like news reports and Wikipedia.
Cyber mercenaries then set up fake accounts at social media sites to glean information from people’s profiles and even join groups or conversations to learn more, Meta investigators said.
Another tactic is to win a target’s trust at a social network, then trick the person into clicking on a booby-trapped link or file that installs software that can then steal information from whatever device they use to go online.
With that kind of access, the mercenary can steal data from a target’s phone or computer, including passwords, photos, videos, and messages, as well as silently activate microphones, cameras, and geo-location tracking, according to the Meta team.
Bluehawk, one of the targeted firms, sells a wide range of surveillance activities, including managing fake accounts to install malicious code, the Meta report said.
Some fake accounts linked to Bluehawk posed as journalists from media outlets such as Fox News in the United States and La Stampa in Italy, according to Meta.
While Meta was not able to pinpoint who was running the unnamed Chinese operation, it did trace “command and control” of the surveillance tool involved to servers that appeared to be used by law enforcement officials in China.
“In some instances, we found this group’s malware framework deployed along with facial recognition software developed by a Beijing-based company,” the Meta report said.