Meta targets ‘cyber mercenaries’ using Facebook to spy

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

Meta targets ‘cyber mercenaries’ using Facebook to spy

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.


Russian journalist who fled house arrest says she is innocent

Russian journalist who fled house arrest says she is innocent
Updated 28 sec ago

Russian journalist who fled house arrest says she is innocent

Russian journalist who fled house arrest says she is innocent
  • The 44-year-old was given two months’ house arrest in August over a protest in July
  • How Marina Ovsyannikova left and where she went are still unclear
Russian TV journalist Marina Ovsyannikova, accused of spreading fake news after staging a series of lone protests against the war in Ukraine, said on Wednesday she had fled house arrest because she had no case to answer.
“I consider myself completely innocent, and since our state refuses to comply with its own laws, I refuse to comply with the measure of restraint imposed on me as of 30 September 2022 and release myself from it,” she said.
In a video posted on Telegram, she sat on a pink sofa and addressed Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service, criticizing President Vladimir Putin over the war.
“Put a tag like this on Putin,” she said, gesturing to what appeared to be an electronic ankle bracelet.
Her lawyer said she was supposed to turn up to a court hearing at 10:00 a.m. Moscow time (0700 GMT), but that investigators had failed to establish her whereabouts.
Investigators had asked the court to convert her initial house arrest order into jail time if she is found, but the court refused to do so, her lawyer said.
Ovsyannikova grabbed world attention in March by walking out in front of studio cameras during an evening news broadcast on state television with a placard that read “Stop the war” and “They’re lying to you.”
The Kremlin at the time denounced her act of protest as “hooliganism.”
The 44-year-old was given two months’ house arrest in August over a protest in July when she stood on a river embankment opposite the Kremlin and held up a poster calling Putin a murderer and his soldiers fascists.
She faced a sentence of up to 10 years in prison if found guilty of the charge of spreading fake news about Russia’s armed forces.
Her house arrest was due to last until Oct. 9, but the state-run news outlet Russia Today reported on Saturday that she had fled along with her 11-year-old daughter, and that her whereabouts were unknown. How she left and where she went are still unclear.
Russia passed new laws against discrediting or distributing “deliberately false information” about the armed forces on March 4, eight days after invading Ukraine.

20th Arab Media Forum begins in Dubai

20th Arab Media Forum begins in Dubai
Updated 05 October 2022

20th Arab Media Forum begins in Dubai

20th Arab Media Forum begins in Dubai
  • The agenda for the two-day event includes presentations, panel discussions and workshops focusing the latest industry developments

DUBAI: The 20th Arab Media Forum began in Dubai on Tuesday, attended by more than 3,000 government officials and leaders from Arab and global media sectors.

The two-day forum, taking place at Madinat Jumeirah under the auspices of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, is described as the largest gathering of Arab media stakeholders, who will explore how new trends and technology, and the sophisticated platforms and tools that could increase the beneficial influence of the media.

To celebrate its 20th anniversary, the forum began by honoring prominent figures and organizations in the Arab media the fields of journalism, television and digital media. The agenda for the event includes presentations, panel discussions and workshops focusing on the latest developments within the industry.


GXR sees itself as a facilitator for artists rather than a record label, says its boss

GXR sees itself as a facilitator for artists rather than a record label, says its boss
Updated 05 October 2022

GXR sees itself as a facilitator for artists rather than a record label, says its boss

GXR sees itself as a facilitator for artists rather than a record label, says its boss
  • Elia Mssawir said the new indie label, which launched two months ago in partnership with Empire, aims to change the face of the music business in the region

DUBAI: The idea for independent music label GXR Records grew from a simple conversation between Elia Mssawir, an award-winning artist manager, and Paul Roy, the CEO of Galaxy Racer, a multimedia company focusing on esports, content creators, music and sport.

They were discussing their shared passion for music and vision for a company in the region that truly cares about its artists, Mssawir told Arab News.

“We started throwing around ideas and (talking about) how we wanted to bridge the gap between MENA (the Middle East and North Africa) and Asia — and that’s how GXR Records was brought to life,” he said.

They launched the label in August this year in partnership with Empire, a global independent label, distributor and publisher. Based in Dubai and with Mssawir as head of label, GXR Records is focused on developing talent in West Asian and North African territories. It has already signed a number of artists from this region, including Freek, Noel Kharman, Dyler, Hanody Awesome and Noor Stars, and the number of acts on its roster has reached more than 20 in the two months since launch. 

Mssawir, who joined Galaxy Racer in April, had been recruiting artists and influencers in India, Pakistan, the Philippines and Malaysia, where the company has offices, and discovered plenty of musical talent in those places. An idea was born to not only sign artists from Asia and Africa but also help them collaborate with their counterparts in the Middle East.

The founders of GXR Records said that, building on parent company Galaxy Racer’s existing portfolio, it is dedicated to identifying and developing a diverse roster of emerging and established artists across the region, while encouraging cross-promotion and collaborations within the label to help them reach a wider audience.

In addition to finding and signing artists, GXR Records will work with Galaxy Racer to create and produce music for the parent company’s influencers and brand collaborations, Mssawir said. These collaborations between artists and the parent brand is part of Mssawir’s vision for the company.

“It’s becoming a family more than a label,” he said.

This ambitious vision is matched by the label’s growth strategy; GXR Records has already opened an office in the US and there are plans to establish bases in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and South Africa by the end of this year. There are no current plans, however, for additional offices in the Middle East.

“Our headquarters here in Dubai are enough to operate on a MENA scale for 2022,” said Mssawir. However, he added that GXR Records intends to expand its presence in Africa and the Levant in the coming year.

One of the challenges, historically, for regional artists has been how to develop and grow into a global presence, Mssawir said. “This is where we come in and enhance this opportunity for them,” he added.

The new label is planning to organize a large-scale music festival next year, something that has been a long-time dream for Mssawir but one he never seemed to have “the time or team to focus on” until now.

“We’re planning on doing small events around the region, building up toward a big festival where we’re hoping to get a couple of international artists, and the MENA artists can open or support the international artists,” he said.

He jokes that his biggest challenge since the launch of GXR has been “sleeping less and working more.” But he added that working hard and putting in long hours is something he is happy to do because “we want to change how the music business is being done here.”

Another challenge he said he has faced is the negative public perception of record labels, something he said has been largely influenced by the way they are portrayed in Hollywood.

“That’s one of the things that we want to change,” he said.

There were no professional managers for acts in the region a decade ago and so artists would often accept any deal they could get, he said. The ecosystem is changing, however, and Mssawir said he is determined to help set high standards for artists, particularly when representing GXR Records as a brand.

“Labels are not there to kill artists’ careers,” he said. “And that’s why I don’t really call (GXR) a label, I call it a facilitator: We facilitate for the artists rather than labeling them.”


Twitter adds Arabic to ‘reply prompts’ feature, launches in Saudi Arabia

Twitter adds Arabic to ‘reply prompts’ feature, launches in Saudi Arabia
Updated 04 October 2022

Twitter adds Arabic to ‘reply prompts’ feature, launches in Saudi Arabia

Twitter adds Arabic to ‘reply prompts’ feature, launches in Saudi Arabia
  • The feature, which Twitter said has already proved successful in other languages, encourages people to think twice before replying to a tweet
  • The platform said English-language users in the US changed or deleted replies 30 percent of the time when prompted

DUBAI: Twitter has added an Arabic version of its “reply prompts” feature for users in Saudi Arabia, following a test phase among select Arabic-speaking users in the Kingdom.

The feature, which is designed to encourage people in certain circumstances to think twice before replying to a tweet, was initially tested in English in 2020. Twitter began to roll it out in some territories in 2021 and it was launched globally in 2022 in English and Turkish, in Spanish in Mexico, and in Portuguese in Brazil.

“People come to Twitter to talk about what’s happening and sometimes conversations about things we care about can get intense and people say things in the moment they might regret later,” Twitter’s director of product design Anita Butler and product manager Alberto Parrella wrote in a blog post.

According to Twitter, the feature has proved successful so far, with tests showing that English-language users in the US changed or deleted their replies 30 percent of the time when prompted, while Portuguese-language users in Brazil did so 47 percent of the time.

The social media platform said it found that after being prompted to reconsider a reply, users canceled it 9 percent of the time and revised it 22 percent of the time. Overall, people who were prompted in this way posted 6 percent fewer offensive tweets.

In early tests, users sometimes received unnecessary prompts because the computer algorithms could not properly differentiate between potentially offensive language, sarcasm and friendly banter. Throughout the process, Twitter said it analyzed results, collected feedback from users and worked to address any errors, including detection inconsistencies. Based on feedback and what was learned from those tests, the platform said it made improvements to the systems that determine when and how the prompts are sent.

For example, the algorithms now takes into consideration the nature of the relationship between two accounts, because if they follow and reply to each other regularly there is a higher likelihood that they have a good understanding of the preferred tone of communication.

Additionally, Twitter said it is adjusting its technology to account for situations in which insulting words or phrases might have been reclaimed by underrepresented communities and used in non-harmful ways, and to detect strong language more accurately. It is also working on ways in which users can provide feedback on whether or not they found a prompt helpful or relevant. 

The feature is now active on iOS, Android and the web on accounts in Saudi Arabia that have enabled Arabic-language settings.


How Iran is manipulating the online narrative to cover up its violent crackdown on protests

How Iran is manipulating the online narrative to cover up its violent crackdown on protests
Updated 05 October 2022

How Iran is manipulating the online narrative to cover up its violent crackdown on protests

How Iran is manipulating the online narrative to cover up its violent crackdown on protests
  • Images of police brutality meted out on young Iranian protesters have gone viral on social platforms
  • To counter the spread of information, the regime has cut internet access and clamped down on social media

DUBAI: As anti-government protests in Iran enter their third week, the death toll has continued to rise, with more than 90 people reportedly having lost their lives in the wave of unrest sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini.

The 22-year-old’s death at the hands of Iran’s morality police, the Gasht-e Ershad, unleashed an outpouring of anger in almost every province over the strict policing of personal freedoms and the deteriorating standard of living. 

Iran’s large diaspora, spread across Europe and North America, has joined the protests in solidarity, with large demonstrations taking place outside Iranian embassies in Western capitals.

Regime authorities have so far acknowledged the death of 41 people since the unrest began yet have refused to give in to demands to relax the strict dress code imposed on women, including the mandatory headscarf.

Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s ultra-conservative president, has dismissed the anti-regime protests as a “conspiracy” orchestrated by outside enemies and has vowed to “deal decisively with those who oppose the country’s security and tranquility.”

Tehran has attempted to limit the spread of information about nationwide protests with blocks on mobile internet. (ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News)

In a statement on Sunday, he said: “At a time when the Islamic Republic was overcoming economic problems to become more active in the region and in the world, the enemies came into play with the intention of isolating the country, but they failed in this conspiracy.”

Videos and photographs emerging from Iran on social media tell a different story. Shocking images of police brutality meted out on young protesters have gone viral on social platforms, eliciting international condemnation. 

To counter the spread of images and information, the regime has limited internet access and clamped down on applications like WhatsApp, Twitter and Instagram — claiming the move was necessary in the interests of “national security.”

Tehran is no stranger to this kind of information warfare. The regime has adopted this strategy multiple times since the proliferation of smartphones and social media in order to control the narrative. 

“Shutting down mobile internet services has become a go-to for the Iranian government when dealing with civil unrest,” Doug Madory, director of internet analysis at monitoring firm Kentik said.

Regime authorities have so far acknowledged the death of 41 people since the unrest began. (AFP)

Protesters have been getting around the regime’s internet controls using secure private connections. They have also been sharing footage and details about forthcoming protests with outlets like the London-based broadcaster Iran International.

Iran’s misinformation strategy is as old as the regime itself. In the 1970s, the revolutionaries fighting to topple the US-backed monarch, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, sought to portray their leader, Ruhollah Khomeini, as a freedom fighter.

Khomeini’s close entourage, which included Western-educated advisers, helped him weave a message that appealed to Iranians inside and outside the country, cleverly modifying his words to appeal to Western audiences. 

Their methods proved extremely effective. Western journalists, who at the time relied on the translations given to them by Khomeini’s advisers, willingly broadcast these messages to the world.

Today, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps utilizes a stable of media outlets, including Fars News, Tasnim and others, to set the political agenda and undermine domestic dissent. 

Protests have spread across Iran over the death of Mahsa Amini after the young woman was arrested by morality police. (AFP)

The IRGC also uses these platforms to broadcast propaganda about operations in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East where the regime holds sway with local proxies. 

At the same time, the English-language state broadcaster Press TV is used to appeal to viewers in the West, often featuring American and European commentators who support Tehran’s policies and worldview. 

In March this year, Ruhollah Mo’men Nasab, former head of the Iranian Culture Ministry’s Digital Media Center, lifted the lid on how the regime disrupts the flow of information and discredits activists.

Describing his work as “psychological warfare,” Nasab boasted of developing software and “cyber battalions” to manipulate the narrative on Twitter through fake accounts. 

Arash Azizi, a history and Middle East specialist at New York University, says the regime has been developing its techniques for internet information manipulation for more than a decade. 

Shocking images of police brutality meted out on young protesters have gone viral on social platforms, eliciting international condemnation. (AFP)

“Perhaps the first Twitter revolution was in 2009 as events were unfolding in Iran,” Azizi told Arab News, referring to that year’s mass protests, known as the Green Movement, which exploded in response to the disputed reelection of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. 

“Nowadays, Iranians use a variety of online tools to get their voice out, which is why the government has tried to shut down the internet entirely,” said Azizi. 

“Iranians abroad and many tech experts, however, are playing an active role in dominating social media with messages about what’s taking place.”

A Twitter account called @1500tasvir, which is run by a group of 10 Iranian activists based inside and outside the country, was first set up in 2019 during the wave of protests sweeping Iran at that time. 

Since the latest outbreak of unrest, the account has posted thousands of videos captured by protesters. One of @1500tasvir’s contributors warned that the regime’s limiting of mobile internet services could undermine the protests.

Thousands took to the streets in violent protests in the city of Tehran. (AFP)

“When you see other people feel the same way, you get braver. You are more enthusiastic to do something about it. When the internet is cut off, you feel alone,” the contributor said.

In response to the regime’s internet shutdowns, Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, pledged Washington would “make sure the Iranian people are not kept isolated and in the dark.” 

On Sept. 23, the US Treasury issued Iran General License D-2, adjusting sanctions rules to allow technology companies to offer the Iranian people more options for secure, outside platforms and services to help counter the regime’s narrative.

Unable to completely snuff out the spread of information online, the regime has instead resorted to its time-tested strategy of detaining social media users whose material gains widespread traction. 

According to state news agency IRNA, Hossein Mahini, a well-known football player, has been arrested “by the order of the judicial authorities for supporting and encouraging riots on his social media page.” 

Nasibe Samsaei, an Iranian woman living in Turkey, cutting off her ponytail during a protest outside the Iranian consulate in Istanbul on September 21, 2022. (AFP)

Another high-profile detainee is Shervin Hajipour, a popular singer who composed a piece using people’s tweets on Amini’s death and the protests. He was reportedly taken into custody last week after his song reached 40 million views on Instagram. 

Although authorities did not immediately confirm Hajipour’s arrest, Mohsen Mansouri, Tehran’s provincial governor, vowed to “take measures against celebrities who contributed to fueling the protests.”

To get around the internet shutdown, some activists have now resorted to distributing flyers to advertise the time and place of planned protests, indicating the regime has failed to quell the unrest.

“They’re yet to have a way of controlling the narrative,” Azizi told Arab News. “The vast majority of Iranians can now see the brutality of this corrupt regime clearly. There have even been letters of solidarity with the protesters from Shiite seminary students in Qom and Mashhad.

“Internationally, thousands have come out in support of the protesters. Even those who usually defend this regime in the Western media are now silent.”