PARIS: An Israeli firm sought to influence more than 30 elections around the world for clients by hacking, sabotage and spreading disinformation, according to an undercover media investigation published on Wednesday.

It adds to a growing body of evidence that shadowy private firms across the world are profiting from invasive hacking tools and the power of social media platforms to manipulate public opinion.

The firm was dubbed “Team Jorge” by investigating journalists who posed as potential clients in order to gather information on its methods and capabilities.

Its boss, Tal Hanan, is a former Israeli special forces operative who boasted of being able to control supposedly secure Telegram accounts and thousands of fake social media profiles, as well as planting news stories, the reports say.

The investigation was carried out by a consortium of journalists from 30 outlets, including the Guardian in Britain, Le Monde in France, Der Spiegel in Germany and El Pais in Spain, under the direction of the France-based non-profit Forbidden Stories.

“The methods and techniques described by Team Jorge raise new challenges for big tech platforms,” the Guardian wrote. “Evidence of a global private market in disinformation aimed at elections will also ring alarm bells for democracies around the world.”

Hanan did not respond to detailed questions, saying only: “I deny any wrongdoing.”

Fake profiles

The 50-year-old told three undercover reporters that his services, often called “black ops” in the industry, were available to intelligence agencies, political campaigns and private companies. “We are now involved in one election in Africa... We have a team in Greece and a team in [the] Emirates... [We have completed] 33 presidential-level campaigns, 27 of which were successful,” the Guardian quoted him as saying.

Most of the campaigns — two-thirds — were in Africa, he claimed.

While demonstrating his technology to reporters, he appeared to hack into the Gmail inbox and Telegram account of political operatives in Kenya days before a presidential election there. Forbidden Stories named the targets as two aides to William Ruto, who ended up winning the August 2022 ballot.

Online public influence campaigns were carried out via a software platform, known as Advanced Impact Media Solutions, that allegedly controlled nearly 40,000 social media profiles across Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, the reports say.

Hanan also claimed that his firm had planted a report on France’s biggest television news channel BFM about the impact of sanctions against Russia on the yachting industry in Monaco. A senior presenter on the channel, Rachid M’Barki, 54, has been suspended and is being investigated.

Public influence

Other similar companies have been named in media reports or sanctioned by Western governments in recent years over their role in trying to influence elections and public opinion.

Notorious British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica — since shut down — was allegedly used to develop software steering voters towards Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential election.

The group collected and exploited the personal data of 87 million Facebook users to which the platform had given it access, leading to major fines and lawsuits.

Published in Dawn, February 16th, 2023

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