Mercenary Espionage Firms That Targeted 50,000 Individuals Exposed By Facebook

In a report released Thursday, Facebook owner Meta Platforms Inc accused a half-dozen private monitoring companies of hacking or other crimes, alleging that they together targeted around 50,000 people across its platforms.

The firm’s struggle with the spy companies is part of a broader push by American technology companies, lawmakers, and President Joe Biden’s administration to blacklist proponents of digital spying services, including the Israeli spyware firm NSO Group, which was blacklisted earlier this month after weeks of revelations about how its technology was being used against civil society.

Meta has already filed a lawsuit against NSO in a US court. According to Reuters, Meta’s head of security policy Nathaniel Gleicher said the action on Thursday was aimed to show that “the surveillance-for-hire market is considerably bigger than one company.”

According to Meta’s report, it has suspended over 1,500 accounts throughout Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, the majority of which are false. The entities, according to Meta, targeted people in over 100 countries.

Meta did not provide a full explanation of how it found the monitoring corporations, but it runs some of the world’s largest social and communications networks and boasts about its capacity to identify and remove harmful actors from its platforms.

Israel’s Black Cube is one of them, having made a name for itself by deploying spies on behest of Hollywood rapist Harvey Weinstein, “likely for later phishing assaults.” Meta said that the intelligence firm was using phantom personas to chat up its targets online and acquire their emails.

In a statement, Black Cube said it “does not undertake any phishing or hacking” and said the firm routinely ensured “all our agents’ activities are fully compliant with local laws.”

BellTroX, an Indian cyber mercenary firm uncovered by Reuters and the internet watchdog Citizen Lab last year, an Israeli firm called Bluehawk CI, and a European firm called Cytrox – all of whom Meta accused of hacking – are among those mentioned by Meta.

Cognyte, which was spun off from security firm Verint Systems Inc (VRNT.O) in February, and Israeli startup Cobwebs Technologies were accused of utilising phoney personas to deceive people into disclosing personal information rather than hacking.

Cognyte, Verint, and Bluehawk did not respond to requests for comment right away.

Gleicher declined to identify any of the targets, however Citizen Lab claimed that one of Cytrox’s victims was Egyptian opposition activist Ayman Nour in a report released at the same time as Meta’s.

Nour blamed the espionage on the Egyptian government, telling Reuters in an interview from Istanbul that he had long feared he was being watched by Egyptian agents.

“For the first time I have evidence,” he said.

There were no comments available from Egyptian authorities.

Other targets of the surveillance firms, according to Gleicher, were celebrities, politicians, journalists, attorneys, executives, and ordinary residents. According to him, the espionage activities included friends and family members of the targets.

David Agranovich, a Meta cybersecurity officer, said he hoped the announcement on Thursday would “kickstart the disruption of the surveillance-for-hire sector.” Other social media companies appeared to be following Meta’s lead, with Twitter announcing the cancellation of 300 accounts just hours after Meta’s statement.

It remains to be seen whether the takedowns are more than a temporary setback for the corporations concerned. Black Cube and BellTroX are two of the companies that have recovered from earlier spying controversies.

(Adapted from TheWire.in)

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