Facebook shuts down suspected state effort to prop up Sudanese military regime

Sudan civil unrestFacebook has shut down a well-funded online campaign to support Sudan’s military regime, which some say is part of wider efforts by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to stop democratic reforms in Sudan. The northeast African country has experienced civil unrest for more than a year. In February Sudan’s longtime strongman, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, fell from power after 30 years, following prolonged popular protests. But the new military junta that succeeded him launched a violent campaign of suppression against the country’s pro-democracy movement. The junta’s leaders have relied heavily on ample support provided by three close American allies, namely Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Meanwhile, the student-led pro-democracy movement has taken to the Internet to mobilize the Sudanese population. The regime has at times shut down the Internet in an attempt to stop pro-democracy organizers from spreading their message online.

Now it has emerged that Facebook detected and terminated a systematic misinformation campaign to promote the views of the Sudanese regime while also slamming the pro-democracy movement as reckless and irresponsible. The campaign was reportedly carried out by two self-described “digital marketing” companies: New Waves, headquartered in Egypt, and Newave, which is based in the Emirates. According to Facebook, the two companies worked in parallel to establish hundreds of fake accounts on social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. They also spent nearly $170,000 to promote material that was posted online by an army of paid users. The latter were allegedly paid $180 a month to post disinformation and other forms of carefully directed propaganda on social media. A total of 13.7 million Facebook and Instagram users were reached in the course of the disinformation campaign, according to Facebook. Twitter and Telegram were also employed by the two companies to post messages in favor of the Sudanese military. Other messages extoled the Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar, as well as Muse Bihi Abdi, president of the self-declared state of Somaliland. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates are staunch supporters of both Haftar and Abdi.

Facebook said it had been unable to collect evidence of a direct link between the New Waves/Newave disinformation campaign and the governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But it added that the features of the campaign bore the hallmarks of a state-run operation. The New York Times, which reported on the story last week, said the Emirati company, Newave, did not respond to several requests for a comment. Amr Hussein, an Egyptian former military officer who owns the Cairo-based New Wave, issued a public statement calling Facebook “liars” and denying he had any links to the Emirates.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 September 2019 | Permalink

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Many countries, not just Russia, are trying to influence US elections, experts warn

TwitterSeveral countries are behind organized efforts to influence electoral politics in the United States, with Russia being one among a growing list of culprits, according to experts. Speaking to The Washington Post last week, cybersecurity experts issued what they described as “a wake-up call” to voters and warned that America’s information space is becoming “a free-for-all for foreign intelligence”. Foreign spy services that are utilizing information operations in order to influence US elections reportedly include —aside from Russia— Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Venezuela and China.

The majority of foreign information operations take place on social-media platforms such as YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. But there are also campaigns to influence more traditional American media, for instance by tricking newspapers into publishing letters to the editor that are in fact authored by foreign intelligence operatives. Analysts from FireEye, Graphika and other cybersecurity and network-analysis firms told The Post that some information operations are difficult to detect, because the presence of a state security service is not always apparent. However, the messages that are communicated in tweets, Facebook postings, online videos, etc., tend to echo —often word for word— the rhetoric of foreign governments, and promote their geopolitical objectives. As can be expected, these objectives vary. Thus, Russian, Israeli and Saudi information operations tend to express strong political support for US President Donald Trump, arguably because these governments see his potential re-election as a development that would further their national interest. In contrast, Iranian information operations tend to lambast Trump for his negative stance on the Iranian nuclear deal and for his support for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in the Yemeni Civil War.

The Washington Post article notes that all major social-media companies employ teams of screeners whose mission is to detect and eliminate disinformation campaigns by both state and non-state actors. However, experts remain skeptical about their ability to combat the phenomenon, given that the quantity and sophistication of disinformation campaigns is constantly increasing. Many countries —including Israel and the United States— now maintain advanced information operations targeting national elections on several continents. There are also many governments —such as Qatar, the Philippines and Turkey— that use these techniques on their own voters and could potentially use them in the near future to target foreign populations, including Americans. The 2020 presidential election in the US is expected to be the most hotly contested in many decades, so it is certain that numerous foreign spy agencies will try to influence it in numerous ways, says The Post.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 July 2019 | Permalink

Election meddling by foreign powers already underway, says Canadian spy agency

CSE CanadaThe manipulation of social media by foreign governments aiming to sow division in Canada ahead of the country’s federal election in October is growing, according to the country’s signals intelligence agency. In a report published Monday, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), Canada’s national communications interception agency, warns that election meddling by foreign powers is already taking place. The report, titled “2019 Update: Cyber Threats to Canada’s Democratic Process”, says that voters, as well as specific political figures, have been targeted by foreign powers since 2015 in the North American country.

The foreign intelligence agencies behind the efforts to manipulate Canada’s electoral process have systematically attempted to “polarize Canadians or undermine Canada’s foreign policy goals”, says the report. These efforts will continue and intensify in the run-up to October, claims the report, and concludes by warning that Canadians should expect to “encounter some form of foreign cyber interference ahead of, and during, the 2019 federal election”. However, foreign cyber interference on the scale that was experienced in the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election in the United States is improbable, according to the CSE.

Meanwhile, in an unrelated development, the former director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), Canada’s primary national intelligence service, said in an interview last week that Ottawa would have to be patient in dealing with Russia and —especially— China. Speaking at a public forum hosted by the Canadian International Council in Vancouver, Richard Fadden noted that neither China nor Russia wish to go to war with the West. What they want instead is to “fragment the West” and thus increase their own influence on the international scene, said Fadden, who directed the CSIS from 2009 to 2013. It would be fair for Canada to “poke back”, he said, but would have to be “careful how [to] do it”, he added. “We need to be realistic. We’re dealing with an emergent superpower and […] we’re going to have to be patient”, Fadden concluded.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 April 2019 | Research credit: C.D. | Permalink

Islamic State’s online footprint declines drastically, experts say

Islamic State - IAThe online arm of the Islamic State, which was once one of the organization’s most noticeable trademarks, has declined markedly in 2018, according to expert observers in the United States and elsewhere. This is especially applicable to the militant group’s online propaganda and recruitment campaign, which appears to have effectively ceased, say experts.

According to The Washington Times newspaper, most information warfare experts at the United States Department of Defense believe that very little is left of the Islamic State’s once sizeable Web and social-media presence. The paper said that, according to the US Pentagon, the total media footprint of the group —which is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)— has diminished by as much as 83 percent since its peak in 2015. Online activity measured by the US Pentagon includes posts on social media by Islamic State members and commanders, as well as professionally produced pro-ISIS images and videos aired on YouTube and other image- and video-based online platforms. It also includes material from the Islamic State’s press bureau, the Amaq News Agency, which in previous years produced hundreds of pro-ISIS videos.

Experts told The Washington Times that the Islamic State’s online footprint has shrunk as a result of the group’s loss of its territory. The loss of ISIS’ physical bases in the Middle East has resulted in the death of many of the group’s online propagandists. Those who survived are currently hiding or fleeing from the authorities, fearing arrest or death. This has “crushed [the militant Sunni group’s] ability to mount a coordinated Web-based strategy”, said The Washington Times. The military attacks against ISIS continue to take place alongside an “aggressive counterstrategy in cyberspace”, said the paper, which is being led by the US Pentagon and its allies. This has included the successful targeting of thousands of social media accounts belonging to ISIS members and supporters, as well as complex hacking operations. The US Pentagon also coordinates the delivery of online content that counters the Islamic State’s narrative and messages.

But some experts warned the paper that the Islamic State continues to recruit members online and that the group’s online recruitment efforts are not completely a thing of the past. In fact, new ISIS-sponsored content continues to appear online regularly, they said. In September of this year alone, the Islamic State released 12 different videos, mostly aimed at recruiting new members. Additionally, the militant group continues to use Facebook, YouTube, and other popular online social media platforms, experts warned.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 26 October 2018 | Permalink

Facebook says efforts to subvert upcoming US elections resemble ‘new arms race’

FacebookFacebook has said it is involved in an “arms race” against “bad actors” as it announced on Tuesday the removal of accounts that allegedly tried to subvert the upcoming mid-term elections in the United States. The social-media giant said its security division had identified 32 profiles and pages that were set up for the sole purpose of disrupting, subverting or otherwise influencing the American political process. At least seven more accounts were shut down on the Instagram platform –which is also owned by Facebook– for the same reasons. In the past 14 months, the suspect accounts generated nearly 10,000 posts and were liked or followed by over 290,000 users, said Facebook.

In addition to producing memes that aimed to stir existing racial, political and religious tensions in American society, the suspect accounts are also believed to have generated approximately 150 paid advertisements, spending around $11,000 for that purpose. Moreover, close to 30 public events were organized, advertised and hosted by the suspect pages throughout the US in the past 14 months. One such event was subscribed to by 4,700 users, with another 1,400 users stating that they would attend.

In a preliminary report posted on its online newsroom, Facebook said it was too early in the investigation to identify the party or parties behind the alleged effort to influence the US mid-term elections. Its security team had detected “one instance” of a connection between this latest operation and the Russian-based Internet Research Agency (IRA), which Facebook identified as being one of the main sources behind efforts to influence the 2016 US presidential elections. But the report cautioned that the instigators of this latest attempt to influence the US political process had gone to great pains to hide their identities, affiliations and geographical coordinates. For instance, they routinely employed virtual private networks in order to disguise their internet protocol addresses. They also used third parties to purchase advertisements on Facebook and Instagram. These and many other tactics severely limited the ability of security technicians to attribute these efforts to specific countries, governments or companies, said Facebook.

Using unusually strong language to describe its ongoing probe, Facebook said that the exploitation of its platform for sinister political purposes resembled “an arms race” and that constantly changing tactics were needed to combat it. In addition to removing the suspect accounts, Facebook said it was working closer with law enforcement and leading online security firms in order to analyze and eliminate threats from what it described as “bad actors”. It added that it was “investing heavily” in more people and better technology in order to eliminate those who were trying to weaponize its communication platform for sinister goals.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 August 2018 | Permalink

Trump’s Twitter feed is ‘gold mine’ for foreign spies, says ex-CIA analyst

Trump 2016With nearly 53 million Twitter followers, United States President Donald Trump could easily be described as the most social-media-friendly American leader in our century. It is clear that Trump uses Twitter to communicate directly with his followers while circumventing mainstream media, which he views as adversarial to his policies. However, according to former Central Intelligence Agency analyst Nada Bakos, foreign intelligence agencies are among those paying close attention to the president’s tweets. Bakos spent 20 years in the CIA, notably as the Chief Targeter of the unit that tracked down Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which later evolved into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. In a June 23 editorial in The Washington Post, Bakos argues that President Trump’s “Twitter feed is a gold mine for every foreign intelligence agency”.

All intelligence agencies, explains Bakos, build psychological profiles of foreign leaders. These profiles typically rely on information collected through intelligence operations that are “methodical, painstaking and often covert”. The final product can be crucial in enabling countries to devise strategies that counter their adversaries, says Bakos. But with Trump, covert intelligence-collection operations are not needed in order to see what is on his mind, since “the president’s unfiltered thoughts are available night and day”, she claims. The former CIA analyst points out that President Trump’s tweets are posted “without much obvious mediation” by his aides and advisors, something that can be seen by the frequency with which he deletes and reposts tweets due to spelling and grammatical errors. These unfiltered thoughts on Twitter offer a “real-time glimpse of a major world leader’s preoccupations, personality quirks and habits of mind”, says Bakos.

Undoubtedly, she argues, foreign intelligence agencies are utilizing President Trump’s tweets in numerous ways while building his personality profile. The most obvious ways are by performing content analysis of his tweets, which could then be matched against information collected from other sources about major US policy decisions. Additionally, foreign intelligence agencies could identify media sources that the US president seems to prefer, and then try to feed information to these sources that might sway his views. Countries like Saudi Arabia and Russia may have done so already, claims Bakos. The US president’s views, as expressed through Twitter, could also be compared and contrasted with the expressed views of his aides or senior cabinet officials, in order to discern who he agrees with the least. It is equally useful to analyze the issues or events that the US president does not tweet about, or tweets about with considerable delay. One could even derive useful information about Trump’s sleeping patterns based on his tweets, says the former CIA analyst.

Bakos does not go as far as to suggest that the US president should abstain from social media. But she clearly thinks that the US leader’s use of social media is too impulsive and potentially dangerous from a national-security perspective. She also laments that, throughout her career in the CIA, she and her team “never had such a rich source of raw intelligence about a world leader, and we certainly never had the opportunity that our adversaries (and our allies) have now”, thanks to Trump’s incessant social media presence.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 03 July 2018 | Permalink

Facebook shared user data with Chinese firm despite warnings by US intelligence

HuaweiThe online social media company Facebook shares data about its users with a Chinese telecommunications company that has been flagged in United States government reports as a threat to security. The New York Times revealed on Tuesday that Facebook has been routinely giving access to the private data of its users to four Chinese companies since at least 2010. The paper said that the data-sharing agreement with Lenovo, Oppo, TCL, and Huawei Technologies, has its roots in 2007. That was the year when Facebook began an effort to entice cell phone hardware and software manufacturers to include Facebook-friendly apps and features in their products. As part of the agreement, Facebook gave cell phone manufacturers access to its users’ private data, including “religious and political leanings, work and education history and relationship status”, said the Times.

However, several sources in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and other governments, have repeatedly flagged Huawei as a company that is uncomfortably close to the Chinese government and its intelligence agencies. In 2011, the US Open Source Center, which acts as the open-source intelligence arm of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, became the first US government agency to openly link Huawei with the Chinese intelligence establishment. It said that Huawei relied on a series of formal and informal contacts with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and the Ministry of State Security, which oversee and administer China’s military and civilian intelligence apparatus. In 2013, the British government launched an official review of Huawei’s involvement in the UK Cyber Security Evaluations Centre in Oxfordshire, England, following a British Parliament report that raised strong concerns about the Chinese company’s links with the government in Beijing. And last year the Australian government expressed concern about Huawei’s plan to provide high-speed Internet to the Solomon Islands, a small Pacific island nation with which Australia shares Internet resources.

In a statement, Facebook said that all data shared with Huawei remained stored on users’ phones and was not downloaded on the Chinese’ company’s private servers. It also said that it would “phase out” the data-sharing agreement with Huawei by the middle of June. The Times noted on Tuesday that Facebook has been officially banned in China since 2009. However, the social media company has been trying to make a comeback in the Chinese market, by cultivating close links with Chinese Communist Party officials. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg visited China in October of last year, and met with Chinese Premier Xi Jinping and other senior officials.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 June 2018 | Permalink