Technology

Facebook warns 50,000 users were targets of spyware

Published : December 17, 2021 16:00 IST

Facebook’s parent company, Meta, suspended around 1,500, mostly fake accounts run by 'cyber mercenaries'. Photo: Dado Ruvic/Illustration/REUTERS

Meta, Facebook's parent company is warning "cyber mercenaries" are using fake accounts to target users.

Nearly 50,000 Facebook users in more than 100 countries around the world have received a warning from the social media giant that they might have been targeted by surveillance companies. Facebook's parent company, Meta, released a report on December 16 saying that "cyber mercenaries" regularly spy on dissidents, critics of authoritarian regimes, journalists, families of opposition members and human rights activists — on behalf of paying clients. "[It] looks like indiscriminate targeting on behalf of the highest bidder," Nathaniel Gleicher, head of security policy at Facebook, said following a months-long investigation.

'Surveillance-for-hire'

Meta said it suspended around 1,500 mostly fake accounts run by seven organizations across Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. The accounts were linked to seven firms in Israel, India, North Macedonia and China, but more than two dozen countries are said to have used their surveillance services. "The surveillance-for-hire industry is much broader than one company," Gleicher said. Meta issued cease and desist letters and said it shared information with law enforcement agencies.

Surveillance through social media

Meta investigators say the companies would collect information about users and often use fake accounts to gain their trust and trick them to install software compromising their devices. The hackers can then access users' passwords, photos, videos and messages. They can also activate cameras and microphones without users knowing.

Cyber surveillance industry under a microscope

Meta's fight with the spy firms comes amid a wider move by U.S. tech companies, lawmakers and President Joe Biden's administration against the cyber-surveillance industry. Notably, the Israeli spyware company NSO Group — the company behind the Pegasus spyware — has come under fire in recent months. Meta is already taking legal action against NSO over reports that it exploited a bug in its WhatsApp messaging service to install malware for surveillance. NSO is opposing the lawsuits and wasn't named in December 16's report.

Facebook itself has been facing increasing scrutiny recently. Rohingya refugees are suing the company over its role in amplifying hate speech that led to genocide against the minority Muslim group in Myanmar. Lawmakers around the world are also looking at ways to reign in the power Meta and other large tech companies.

lo/fb (AFP, Reuters)

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