Meta Bans Israeli ‘Cyber Mercenaries’ That Targeted Journalists, Palestinians, and Activists

Meta's Silicon Valley headquarters. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Meta has banned from its platform four ‘cyber mercenary’ firms headquartered in Israel, which the company says conducted surveillance on human rights activists, journalists, and “critics of authoritarian regimes.” 

“These companies are part of a sprawling industry that provides intrusive software tools and surveillance services indiscriminately to any customer — regardless of who they target or the human rights abuses they might enable,” writes Meta’s head of cyber espionage investigations Mike Dvilyanski. “This industry ‘democratizes’ these threats, making them available to government and non-government groups that otherwise wouldn’t have these capabilities.”

Four of the seven firms named in Meta’s threat report are Israeli companies— Cobwebs Technologies, Cognyte, Black Cube, and Bluehawk CI —while the other three are based in China, India, and North Macedonia.

Meta removed 200 social media accounts operated by the Israel-based Cobwebs Technologies that were engaged in Reconnaissance, which involves the “silent profiling” of targets through public information like social media profiles. 

Black Cube, the surveillance firm hired by Harvey Weinstein to investigate journalists, was included on the watchlist and accused of Reconnaissance, Engagement, and Exploitation, the three stages that make up the totality of the surveillance chain as defined by Meta. The Engagement and Exploitation stages go beyond silent profiling by creating reference points for targets and manipulating those engagements to extract personal and private data. Black Cube primarily targeted activists and NGOs, including Palestinian activists. 

Israel-based global intelligence leader, Cognyte, had over 100 Facebook and Instagram accounts taken offline, and, according to Meta, targeted “journalists and politicians around the world.” 

The final Israeli group listed was Bluehawk, a surveillance company previously linked to a ‘snoop-for-hire’ that posed as a Fox News journalist for a spy operation. Meta says they removed over 100 Facebook accounts linked to Bluehawk, after which the group persistently tried to reengage with the platform and set up new accounts. The accounts posed as fake journalists from Fox News and attempted to trick users into on-camera interviews. The latest attacks from Bluehawk have reportedly targeted Argentina. 

Israeli cyber-surveillance has come under greater scrutiny after it was reported that NSO Group, an Israeli company, aided Saudi Arabia and potentially other unknown attackers in covert operations. NSO group’s Pegasus spyware has been linked to a line of cyber-attacks targeted at human rights activists and lawyers. NSO Group and the Israeli government have denied any association with the attacks.

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