Facebook bans seven cyber mercenary firms from its platforms

Facebook bans seven cyber mercenary firms from its platforms – including Israeli company used by Harvey Weinstein to target women who accused him of abuse

  • The social media giant said it was suspending 1,500 mostly fake accounts
  • Facebook also said it would send warnings to 48,000 potentially targeted users
  • Among them is Israel’s Black Cube, which became notorious for deploying its spies on behalf of Hollywood rapist Harvey Weinstein against his accusers
  • Company said investigation shed a new light on the ‘cyber-mercenary’ industry

Facebook has banned seven cyber-mercenary firms from its platforms, including an Israeli company hired by Harvey Weinstein to target his accusers.

The company also said in a report published on Thursday that it will send warning notices to 48,000 users who Facebook believes were targeted by malicious activity, after a months-long investigation carried out into the ‘cyber mercenary’ industry.

The social media giant said its investigation had uncovered new details about how the surveillance companies enable their clients to ‘indiscriminately’ target internet users worldwide to collect intelligence about them and manipulate them.

Facebook owner Meta Platforms Inc said said it was suspending roughly 1,500, mostly fake accounts run by seven organisations across Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. Meta said the entities targeted people in more than 100 countries.

Among them is Israel’s Black Cube, which became notorious for deploying its spies on behalf of Hollywood rapist Harvey Weinstein against his accusers.

Meta said the intelligence firm was deploying phantom personas to chat its targets up online and gather their emails, ‘likely for later phishing attacks.’ 

Facebook has banned seven cyber-mercenary firms from its platforms, including an Israeli company hired by Harvey Weinstein to target his accusers. The company’s report said the companies would ‘indiscriminately’ target internet users worldwide to collect intelligence

Others called out by Meta include BellTroX, an Indian cyber mercenary firm and the internet watchdog Citizen Lab last year, an Israeli company called Bluehawk CI, and a European firm named Cytrox – all of whom Meta accused of hacking.

Cognyte, which was spun off from security giant Verint Systems Inc in February, and Israeli firms Cobwebs Technologies were accused not of hacking but of using fake profiles to trick people into revealing private data. 

Meta did not provide a detailed explanation of how it identified the surveillance firms, but it operates some of the world’s biggest social and communications networks and regularly touts its ability to find and remove malicious actors.

The company’s fight with the spy firms comes amid a wider move by American tech companies and President Joe Biden’s administration against purveyors of digital espionage services.

One of the most notable is the Israeli spyware company NSO Group, which was blacklisted earlier this month following weeks of revelations about how its technology was being deployed against civil society.

Meta is already suing NSO in a U.S. court. Nathaniel Gleicher, Meta’s head of security policy said Thursday’s crackdown was meant to signal that ‘the surveillance-for-hire industry is much broader than one company.’

‘It’s important to realize that NSO is only one piece of a much broader global cyber mercenary ecosystem,’ Facebook said. 

Facebook’s investigation comes as the company itself is facing scrutiny over the effect its effect on society. 

Accusations by a whistleblower, Frances Haugen, who said Meta’s platforms spread hate speech and disinformation and harm young people only intensified that scrutiny from Washington lawmakers.

Meta is already suing NSO in a U.S. court. Nathaniel Gleicher, Meta’s head of security policy said Thursday’s crackdown was meant to signal that ‘the surveillance-for-hire industry is much broader than one company’

Facebook’s investigation comes as the company itself is facing scrutiny over the effect its effect on society. Accusations by a whistleblower, Frances Haugen (pictured giving testimony in the US in October), who said Meta’s platforms spread hate speech and disinformation and harm young people only intensified that scrutiny from Washington lawmakers

The investigation gives more significant insight into how social media platforms are used by the surveillance industry to create fake accounts and deceive their targets.

Responding to Facebook’s report, Black Cube said in a statement it ‘does not undertake any phishing or hacking’ and said the firm routinely ensured ‘all our agents’ activities are fully compliant with local laws.’ 

Black Cube has previously apologised for its work for Weinstein. 

Cognyte, Verint and Bluehawk did not immediately return messages seeking comment from Reuters news agency.

In an email, Cobwebs spokesperson Meital Levi Tal said the company drew on open sources and that its products ‘are not intrusive by any means.’

Messages left with Ivo Malinovski, who until recently identified himself as Cytrox’s chief executive on LinkedIn, received no immediate response. 

BellTroX founder Sumit Gupta has not returned Reuters’ messages since his firm was exposed last year. He had previously denied wrongdoing.

Gleicher refused to identify any of the targets by name but Citizen Lab, in a report published at the same time as Meta’s, said that one of Cytrox’s victims was Egyptian opposition figure Ayman Nour.

Nour blamed the Egyptian government for the spying, saying in an interview from Istanbul that he had long suspected he was under surveillance by officials there.

‘For the first time I have evidence,’ he said.

Egyptian authorities did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Among the companies banned by Facebook is Israel’s Black Cube, which became notorious for deploying its spies on behalf of Hollywood rapist Harvey Weinstein against his accusers. Pictured: The Hollywood mogul seen in February 2020

Gleicher said other targets of the spy firms included celebrities, politicians, journalists, lawyers, executives and regular citizens. Friends and family of the targets were also swept up in the espionage campaigns, he said.

Meta cybersecurity official David Agranovich said he hoped Thursday’s announcement would ‘kickstart the disruption of the surveillance-for-hire market.’

There were some signs that other social media firms were taking similar action, with Twitter announcing the removal of 300 accounts a few hours after Meta’s announcement.

Whether the takedowns deal the companies involved more than a temporary setback remains to be seen. Two of the companies, Black Cube and BellTroX, have bounced back after being embroiled in previous spy scandals.

Gleicher said that targets of the spy firms would receive automated warnings, but he said Facebook would stop short of identifying the specific firms involved or their clients. 

That’s despite the fact that Facebook said it had identified several customers of Cobwebs, Cognyte, Cytrox, and Black Cube – the latter of which includes law firms.

Marta Pardavi, one of several Hungarian human rights defenders who say they were targeted by Black Cube in 2017 and 2018, said she was gratified by the news of Facebook’s report but wanted more information.

‘They name law firms,’ she said. ‘But law firms have clients. Who are the clients for these law firms?’  

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