A criminal scheme using bots, fake news sites, and hacking into Gmail and Telegram is sold in South America, Africa, and other regions
More than 30 elections around the world may have suffered interference from an Israeli company that offers candidates “services” for hacking into Gmail and Telegram, mass use of fake profiles on social networks, and the creation of fake news sites to manipulate public opinion, among other schemes.
The Guardian published the report on Wednesday (15). The case is being investigated by a consortium of international media outlets. Three journalists from the network, working undercover, managed to record the Israeli Tal Hanan, one of the owners of the scheme, explaining the services that are also offered to the private sector for commercial disputes.
Hanan said that in the past 20 years, out of 33 elections where his “company” has operated, in 27 of them his clients have been “successful.” Among the affected regions are countries in South America, Africa, and Europe.
The investigative reporters were able to find ties between the Israeli service and Cambridge Analytica, a company that gained worldwide media attention after being accused of manipulating elections and public opinion in the United States and Europe, among other places.
The “Team Jorge” Scheme
Tal Hanan, 50, a former Israel special forces officer, runs a unit called “Team Jorge,” which has a few offices around the world and offers hacking, “psychological warfare,” and disinformation services, with expertise in election “finance, social media, and campaigns.”
The Guardian said that Hanan showed undercover journalists (thinking they were potential clients) software called “Aims,” designed to manage bots on social networks. With it, the Israeli said he already controls more than 30,000,000 fake profiles, complete with “digital backstories that stretch back years.”
This software, which “enabled users to create up to 5,000 bots to deliver ‘mass messages’ and ‘propaganda,’ had been used in 17 elections,” Hanan – who uses the pseudonym Jorge – said in emails exchanged with journalists.
“It’s our own developed Semi-Auto Avatar creation and network deployment system,” he said, adding that it could be used in any language and was being sold as a service, although the software could be bought “if the price is right”.
The Guardian pointed out that not everything Hanan said could be checked by the consortium yet. The report does not rule out the possibility that the Israeli company may be embellishing its services in order to raise the price it charges.
According to the undercover journalists who posed as advisors to a politician from an African country with an interest in delaying the election, Hanan wanted to charge between 6 and 15 million pounds, accepting payment in various currencies, including bitcoin.
But in 2015, according to evidence found by the international media consortium, Hanan’s company charged Cambridge Analytica $160,000 for an 8-week campaign in a Latin American country not disclosed by the report.
Aims software was used in business disputes in some 20 countries, including the UK, US, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Mexico, Senegal, India, and the United Arab Emirates.
In addition to Aims, Hanan told reporters about his “blogger machine” – an automated system for creating websites that social media profiles controlled by Aims could use to spread fake news across the Internet. “After you’ve created credibility, what do you do? Then you can manipulate,” he said.
Hacking Telegram and Gmail
In addition, Hanan also showed journalists a system that allows him to hack (not only to read but also to send messages) Telegram and Gmail. To illustrate, Hanan hacked into an account that he attributed to a political advisor in an African country. The report was able to verify that the hack was real.
The Israeli even explained that the hackers “exploited vulnerabilities in the global signalling telecoms system, SS7, which for decades has been regarded by experts as a weak spot in the telecoms network.”
In a message to The Guardian, Telegram itself admitted that the system flaw is real and said that users should take steps recommended by the platforms to keep their accounts secure. Gmail declined to comment.