Facebook’s parent company Meta in a report on Thursday said that about 50,000 social media users in 100 countries were spied upon by surveillance companies from India, China, Israel and North Macedonia.
Meta has accused the surveillance firms of creating fake accounts, befriending targets and hacking their accounts to gather information. The company said it has suspended 1,500 pages and accounts across Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.
The report stated that these firms often claim that their hacking services are meant to target criminals and terrorists. However, Meta found that their spywares have been indiscriminately used against journalists, critics of the government, families of Opposition parties and human rights activists.
“Given the severity of their violations, we have banned them from our services,” Meta said in its report.
“BellTroX operated fake accounts to impersonate a politician and pose as journalists and environmental activists in an attempt to social-engineer its targets to solicit information including their email addresses, likely for phishing attacks at a later stage,” Meta said in its report published on Thursday.
The accounts related to BellTrox were primarily active between 2013 and 2019. After a year-long break, the company started operating social media accounts again in 2021, this time impersonating journalists and media personalities to send phishing links and acquire targets’ email addresses.
Lawyers, doctors, activists and members of the clergy in countries including Australia, Angola, Saudi Arabia, and Iceland were among BellTroX’s targets.
Meta said it removed 400 Facebook accounts linked to the Indian firm.
The list of firms blacklisted by Meta also include Israel’s Black Cube, which was used by former Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein to spy on women who have accused him of sexual assault, the BBC reported.
Weinstein, 69, was sentenced in March by a Manhattan criminal court to 23 years in prison for assaulting former production assistant Mimi Haleyi and raping former aspiring actress Jessica Mann. His conviction was seen as a watershed moment in the #MeToo movement against sexual abuse and harassment.
The finding’s of Meta brings more scrutiny to the surveillance industry and echo those of the Pegasus Project. Pegasus is a spyware made by Israeli cybersecurity firm NSO Group Technologies.
The Wire along with 16 media organisations around the world, have published many stories about individuals who might possibly be targets of government snooping using Pegasus.
Meta said that while the company has previously taken legal action against NSO for allegedly delivering the spyware to users through WhatsApp, the problems posed by private surveillance companies are broader.
It is the collective responsibility of technology platforms, civil society groups and democratic governments to collectively respond to the abusive “surveillance-for-hire” services, the report said.
“Our hope with this threat report is to contribute to this global effort and help shine the light on this industry,” it stated.