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Israelis have used bots in social networks, fake news, to interfere in elections in dozens of countries for more than 20 years

By Olga Filimonova
February 16, 2023

Undercover journalists exposed a group of Israeli contractors that interfered in the elections of at least 33 countries. They used vulnerabilities in social networks, cheated bots and created fake news

A group of Israeli contractors, including a unit codenamed "Team Jorge" set up by ex-special forces officer Tal Hanan alias "Jorge", has been interfering and manipulating elections in dozens of countries for more than 20 years. This is with reference to the investigation of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) reports The Guardian.

According to investigators, Hanan offered his services to foreign governments and intelligence agencies, as well as to corporate clients "who wanted to covertly manipulate public opinion." He told undercover reporters that "Team Jorge" had conducted successful operations in Africa, South and Central America, as well as the United States and Europe.

How do contractors work?

Israeli contractors provide clients with various packages of services, the key of which is "advanced media impact solutions," the journalists say. They control a “huge army of thousands of fake profiles” on the social networks Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Telegram, Gmail, Instagram and YouTube (Facebook and Instagram are owned by Meta, which has been declared extremist in Russia and its activities are banned). “Some avatars even have Amazon accounts with credit cards, bitcoin wallets and Airbnb accounts,” writes The Guardian.

Hanan's undercover ICIJ reporters were told by his team about how they were gathering information on rivals, including using hacking techniques to access Gmail and Telegram accounts. In addition, they boasted that they placed materials in legitimate news outlets, and then with the help of special software they controlled cheating and bots.

Much of their strategy appears to have revolved around disrupting or sabotaging rival campaigns: the team even claimed to have sent a sex toy via Amazon to the politician's home to give his wife the false impression that he was having an affair. Guardian.

Intervention cost

The newspaper writes that the exposure of "Team Jorge" could cause problems for Israel, which is already "under increasing diplomatic pressure due to the export of cyber weapons that undermine democracy and human rights." According to the ICIJ, Jorge conducted some of his operations through the Israeli company Demoman International, which the Israeli Defense Ministry used to promote exports of defense products.

Hanan himself described his team as international professionals and government graduates "with expertise in finance, social media and campaigning, and psychological warfare." For each case of election interference, he offered to pay from €6 million to €15 million in cash or cryptocurrency.

At the same time, investigators point out that from emails found by The Guardian, it follows that in 2015 Hanan offered the British consulting company Cambridge Analytica $ 160,000 for participating in an eight-week campaign in a Latin American country. The leaked documents also revealed that "Team Jorge" was secretly working on Nigeria's 2015 presidential race.

Application for creating bots

In addition, Hanan told reporters that his division has created special software called Aims, which can create up to 5,000 bots to deliver "bulk messages" and "propaganda." “This is our own development for creating semi-automatic avatars and a network deployment system,” he said and indicated that he had already been used in 17 elections.

While demonstrating the Aims interface, Hanan scrolled through dozens of avatars and showed how fake profiles could be created instantly by using tabs to select nationality and gender and then matching profile pictures with names, the newspaper notes. “These are Spaniards, Russians, you see Asians, Muslims. Let's make a candidate together," he urged reporters.

When asked where the photos for bot avatars come from, Hanan did not directly answer. However, journalists were able to identify several cases where the images were taken from social media accounts of real people. In addition to Aims, Hanan spoke about his “blogging machine,” an automated system for creating websites that Aims-controlled profiles used to create fake news., 02/15/2023 "Israeli Operatives Manipulated Elections Around the World - Media": A bot named @Canaelan was found to have links to numerous fake social media profiles, all controlled by Team's disinformation spreading software Jorge and based in Israel.

Software known as Advanced Impact Media Solutions (AIMS) monitors more than 30,000 fake social media profiles, each of which can be used to spread misinformation or propaganda at an extraordinary rate, according to the investigation. [...] three journalists from Haaretz, The Marker and Radio France approached the team on the pretext that they were consultants working on behalf of clients in an unnamed African country who were trying to delay elections. Meetings between Hanan and journalists took place through video calls, as well as a face-to-face meeting in an unmarked office in Modiin. Also present at the meetings were four of Khanan's operatives, including his brother Zohar Khanan, whom The Guardian named as the group's chief executive.

In his initial address to those he considered potential new clients, Hanan stated that Jorge's team had completed "33 presidential-level campaigns, 27 of which were successful." He also told undercover reporters that he was involved in two "major projects" in the US, but said that Jorge's team was not directly involved in US politics. - Inset

Hacking Telegram accounts

Speaking about ways to obtain the necessary information, Hasan showed reporters how he hacks the “secure Telegram”: from the account of one “Kenyan strategist”, Hanan sent a message “hello, how are you, dear” to one of his contacts. “You understand that one of the most important things is to put sticks between the right people. And I can text him what I think of his wife, or what I think of his last speech, or I can tell him that I promised him to be my next chief of staff, okay?” - said the head of the illegal company.

In response to a question about hacking methods, Hanan hinted that his company may have exploited vulnerabilities in the SS7 global communications system used to send service messages over the telephone network.

Telegram, in response to a request from The Guardian, said that the SS7 vulnerability issue is "widely known and not unique." “Accounts on any popular social network or messaging app could be vulnerable to hacking or impersonation if users do not follow security best practices and take proper precautions to keep their accounts safe,” the press noted. -service.

Spyware from Israel

This is not the first time that firms with Israeli roots have been exposed for surveillance and spyware. So, in July 2021, the non-profit journalistic organization Forbidden Stories and The Washington Post, The Guardian, Haaretz and Les Echos who joined the investigation reported that the authorities in some countries used NSO Group software to hack the phones of politicians, journalists and activists around the world. For surveillance, Pegasus, a remotely implemented spyware program, was used, the right to use which is granted only to states and state agencies.

The investigation showed that one of the leaked lists of tapped phones contained 50,000 numbers. Wiretapping was conducted from Mexico, India and Hungary. Also among the countries whose governments have authorized the use of Pegasus against the press are Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, India, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The targets of the hack were journalists from both local and international publications, including CNN, Associated Press, New York Times and Bloomberg.

After that, the US Department of Commerce blacklisted NSO Group for actions in cyberspace that "threaten the interests of national security and foreign policy" of the country, and Apple sued the company. According to the corporation, NSO Group and its clients hacked smartphones of private users and gained access to a microphone, camera and personal data.

The NSO Group has called the allegations unfounded and said it operates in an ethical manner. Sources later told Bloomberg and the Financial Times that following numerous allegations, the NSO Group had run into financial difficulties and was considering selling the company or closing its Pegasus division.