Meta targets ‘cyber mercenaries’ using Facebook to spy

Meta has taken down 1,500 Facebook and Instagram pages linked to “cyber mercenary” groups. (AFP)
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Updated 17 December 2021
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Meta targets ‘cyber mercenaries’ using Facebook to spy

  • The social media giant also started warning about 50,000 people it believes may have been targeted by hackers

SAN FRANCISCO, USA: Facebook parent Meta on Thursday banned a series of “cyber mercenary” groups, and began alerting some 50,000 people likely targeted by the firms accused of spying on activists, dissidents and journalists worldwide.
Meta took down 1,500 Facebook and Instagram pages linked to groups 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.
The social media giant also started warning about 50,000 people it believes may have been targeted in more than 100 nations by firms that include several from Israel, which is a leading player in the cybersurveillance business.
“The surveillance-for-hire industry... looks like indiscriminate targeting on behalf of the highest bidder,” Nathaniel Gleicher, head of security policy at Meta, told a press briefing.
The Facebook parent 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 Macedonian firm Cytrox and an unidentified entity in China also saw accounts linked to them removed from Meta platforms.
Cytrox was also accused Thursday by researchers at Canadian cybersecurity organization Citizen Lab of developing and selling spyware used to hack Egyptian opposition figure Ayman Nour’s phone.

“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. “We have banned them from our services.”
Black Cube, in a statement to AFP, denied wrongdoing or even operating in the “cyber world.”
“Black Cube works with the world’s leading law firms in proving bribery, uncovering corruption, and recovering hundreds of millions in stolen assets,” it said, adding the firm ensures it complies with local laws.
Firms selling “web intelligence services” start the surveillance process by gathering information from publicly available online sources such as news reports and Wikipedia.
Cyber mercenaries then set up fake accounts on 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 on a social network and 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, as well as silently activate microphones, cameras and tracking, according to the Meta team.
Bluehawk, one 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 traced “command and control” of the surveillance tool involved to servers that appeared to be used by law enforcement officials in China.


Mali’s junta bans the media from reporting on political activities in a deepening crackdown

Updated 12 April 2024
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Mali’s junta bans the media from reporting on political activities in a deepening crackdown

  • Maison de le Press, an umbrella organization of journalists in Mali, said it rejects the order and called on media to continue with their work
  • Col. Assimi Goita, who took charge after a second coup in 2021, has failed in his promised to return the country to democracy in early 2024

BAMAKO, Mali: In a deepening crackdown, Mali’s ruling junta on Thursday banned the media from reporting on activities of political parties and associations, a day after suspending all political activities in the country until further notice.

The order, issued by Mali’s high authority for communication, was distributed on social media. The notice said it applied to all forms of the media, including television, radio, online and print newspapers.
Mali has experienced two coups since 2020, leading a wave of political instability that has swept across West and Central Africa in recent years. Along with its political troubles, the country is also in the grip of a worsening insurgency by militants linked to Al-Qaeda and the Daesh group.
The scope of the ban — or how it would be applied in practice — was not immediately clear. It was also not known if journalists would still be allowed to report on issues such as the economy, which are closely tied to politics and who would monitor their work.
The umbrella organization that represents journalists in Mali responded with an unusually stern rebuttal.
The group, known as Maison de le Press, or Press House, said it rejects the order and called on journalists to continue to report on politics in Mali. It also urged them to “stand tall, remain unified and to mobilize to defend the right of citizens to have access to information.”
Mali’s national commission for human rights also expressed regret and profound concern over the decision in a statement published late Thursday. It warned the junta the decision could prove harmful.
“Instead of calming the social climate, these restrictions on fundamental rights and freedoms could potentially stir up trouble and tension, which the country does not need,” it said.
The clampdown on the media followed a similar action on Wednesday, when the junta ordered the suspension of all activities by political parties until further notice, citing a a need to preserve public order. The news was broadcast on state television as the population was celebrating Eid Al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan during which observant Muslims fast from dawn till dusk.
Analysts said the move was likely a backlash against political figures, civil society and students who have expressed frustration with the junta’s failure to return the country to democratic rule as promised.
“Recent weeks saw mounting pressure by political parties and figures,” Rida Lyammouri of the Policy Center for the New South, a Morocco-based think tank, told The Associated Press. “For the first time, the public and politicians have publicly criticized junta leaders and accused them of a lack of seriousness.”
Col. Assimi Goita, who took charge after a second coup in 2021, promised to return the country to democracy in early 2024. But in September, the junta canceled elections scheduled for February 2024 indefinitely, citing the need for further technical preparations.
The junta has vowed to end the insurgency that emerged in 2012 after deposing the elected government. It cut military ties with France amid growing frustration with the lack of progress after a decade of assistance, and turned to Russian contractors, mercenaries from the Wagner group, for security support instead. But analysts say the violence has only grown worse.
The United States said it was “deeply concerned” by the ban on political activities. “Freedom of expression and freedom of association are critical to an open society,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters in Washington.


Palestinian flag emoji sparks Apple controversy

Updated 12 April 2024
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Palestinian flag emoji sparks Apple controversy

  • The latest iPhone software updates automatically suggest the Palestinian flag when users type "Jerusalem" in Messages
  • Jerusalem’s status remains highly contentious, with both Israel and Palestine claiming it as their capital

LONDON: The inclusion of a Palestinian flag emoji when users type “Jerusalem” has sparked controversy for Apple, with accusations of antisemitism leveled against the American tech giant.

The issue emerged after a recent software update automatically suggested the Palestinian flag emoji, drawing criticism from British TV presenter Rachel Riley, an outspoken supporter of Israel.

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Riley took to social media to highlight the anomaly, noting that other capital cities typically do not trigger flag suggestions.

She wrote on X: “Dear @‌Apple @applesupport @tim_cook I’ve just upgraded my software to version iOS 17.4.1, and now, when I type the capital of Israel, Jerusalem, I’m offered the Palestinian flag emoji.

“This didn’t occur on my phone immediately before this update.

“Below is a (non-exhaustive) list of capital cities that do not offer their nation’s flags, let alone the wrong one.”

Riley accused the Cupertino company of “double standards,” which she views as a “form of antisemitism” when referring to Israel.

One social media expert suggested that the issue could have resulted from “human intervention.”

“There is nothing inherently wrong with associating Jerusalem with Palestinian belief, but Apple's choice of default settings warrants justification, especially considering the potential discriminatory implications of this decision,” said Tom Divon, a researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in an interview with The Telegraph.

The iPhone maker said the change made to the keyboard was unintentional and followed a recent software update.

A spokesperson for Apple explained that the Palestinian flag was the result of a “bug” within predictive emoji, adding that it would be fixed in the new iOS software update.

Jerusalem’s status remains highly contentious, with both Israel and Palestine claiming it as their capital.

Map of the Old City of Jerusalem. (AFP/File)

The city is divided, with Israel controlling the western part and the eastern part viewed as Palestinian territory by the UN, although Israel has repeatedly been accused of exerting extensive power and using violence over the area in an attempt to gain control.

Former US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017 further fueled tensions, drawing condemnation from the international community and Palestinian leaders, who described the move as “deplorable and unacceptable measures (that) deliberately undermine all peace efforts.”

 


Protesters in Eurovision host city call for boycott of Israel

Updated 11 April 2024
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Protesters in Eurovision host city call for boycott of Israel

  • Eurovision organizers European Broadcasting Union has so far resisted calls for Israel to be excluded from Eurovision over Gaza war
  • EBU said Eurovision is not a contest between governments and that Israeli broadcaster KAN met all competition rules

MALMO: Protesters waving Palestinian flags and banners on Wednesday called for a boycott of Israel at the upcoming Eurovision Song Contest in the Swedish city of Malmo that will host the event next month.
The European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which organizes Eurovision, bills the song contest as a non-political event.
But the global political backdrop often weighs on the contest, which this year takes place amid protests and boycotts over the devastating Israeli military campaign in Gaza, triggered by Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, affecting cultural events across Europe.
“I think there is no way that Israel should be able to participate in Eurovision and it’s complete double standards that they let them participate when they kicked Russia out,” said Malmo resident Mats Rehle, 43, who works in a bookshop.
Protesters outside Malmo city held a banner calling for the boycott of Israel above the Eurovision logo, while another banner featured red stains to look like blood and a pair of scissors cutting the chord to a microphone displaying an Israeli flag.
The EBU in 2022 banned Russia from Eurovision after several European public broadcasters called for the country to be expelled following its invasion of Ukraine.
The union has said it suspended the Russian broadcasters over “persistent breaches of membership obligations and the violation of public service values.”
The organizers’ decision to include Israeli broadcaster KAN has sparked protests from artists and ministers, but the EBU said in January that Eurovision was not a contest between governments and that KAN met all competition rules.
The union has so far resisted calls for Israel to be excluded from Eurovision, and on Wednesday urged people to refrain from online abuse directed at some participating artists.
“We have all been affected by the images, stories, and the unquestionable pain suffered by those in Israel and in Gaza,” the EBU said in a statement.
“However... we wish to address the concerns and discussions surrounding this situation, especially the targeted social media campaigns against some of our participating artists,” it added.

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Meta to blur Instagram messages containing nudity in latest move for teen safety

Updated 11 April 2024
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Meta to blur Instagram messages containing nudity in latest move for teen safety

  • The feature will use on-device machine learning to analyze image sent as direct message on Instagram
  • The company also mentioned that they are currently developing new tools to identify accounts engaged in sextortion

LONDON: Instagram will test features that blur messages containing nudity to safeguard teens and prevent potential scammers from reaching them, its parent Meta said on Thursday as it tries to allay concerns over harmful content on its apps.
The tech giant is under mounting pressure in the United States and Europe over allegations that its apps were addictive and have fueled mental health issues among young people.
Meta said the protection feature for Instagram’s direct messages would use on-device machine learning to analyze whether an image sent through the service contains nudity.
The feature will be turned on by default for users under 18 and Meta will notify adults to encourage them to turn it on.
“Because the images are analyzed on the device itself, nudity protection will also work in end-to-end encrypted chats, where Meta won’t have access to these images – unless someone chooses to report them to us,” the company said.
Unlike Meta’s Messenger and WhatsApp apps, direct messages on Instagram are not encrypted but the company has said it plans to roll out encryption for the service.
Meta also said that it was developing technology to help identify accounts that might be potentially engaging in sextortion scams and that it was testing new pop-up messages for users who might have interacted with such accounts.
In January, the social media giant had said it would hide more content from teens on Facebook and Instagram, adding this would make it more difficult for them to come across sensitive content such as suicide, self-harm and eating disorders.
Attorneys general of 33 US states, including California and New York, sued the company in October, saying it repeatedly misled the public about the dangers of its platforms.
In Europe, the European Commission has sought information on how Meta protects children from illegal and harmful content. (Reporting by Granth Vanaik in Bengaluru; Editing by Aditya Soni and Alan Barona)


BBC to split India news operations

Updated 10 April 2024
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BBC to split India news operations

  • New Indian-owned subsidiary Collective Newsroom will provide content as part of new restrictions
  • Decision comes in the wake of tax officials raiding the BBC India office following the broadcast of a documentary critical of Prime Minister Modi

LONDON: The BBC in India is set to divide its news operations into two entities to comply with the country’s foreign investment regulations, the broadcaster announced on Wednesday.

Effective immediately, the restructuring will involve the establishment of a new Indian-owned subsidiary named the Collective Newsroom, through which the network will continue its content production in India.

BBC, known for its six regional channels broadcasting in various Indian languages including Hindi, Tamil, and Punjabi, intends to hold a 26 percent stake in Collective Newsroom, allowing it to maintain significant independence from the parent broadcaster.

This development follows stringent regulations implemented by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2021, mandating limited foreign ownership in national media entities.

“The BBC for the first time in its history has handed over content to an outside company set up by employees,” said one of the corporation’s journalists to the Financial Times.

The move comes a year after BBC India’s offices were searched by authorities.

The income tax officials conducted the searches shortly after the broadcaster aired a documentary critical of Modi in the UK, though not in India.

At the time, the government maintained that the timing of the raids was unrelated to the documentary, which drew condemnation from Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

In response, emergency laws were invoked to prohibit the sharing of any clips or footage from the documentary.

The government contended that the raids were part of an investigation into the BBC’s alleged violation of India’s stringent foreign investment regulations, accusing it of not fully disclosing profits.

Prior to the split, the UK broadcaster, which has had a presence in India since 1940, had around 300 journalists in India, with approximately 90 expected to remain directly employed by the BBC’s UK branch.

Collective Newsroom, founded by four BBC staffers, will absorb the remaining former BBC employees.

The new company will also be able to make content for other news providers across India and globally.

Rupa Jha, chief executive of Collective Newsroom, said the new company has “a clear, ambitious mission to create the most credible, creative and courageous journalism.”

She added: “Audiences will quickly come to know Collective Newsroom as an independent news organization that leads with the facts, works in the public interest and hears from diverse voices and perspectives.”