By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 17 December 2021
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 organisation Citizen Lab of developing and selling spyware used to hack Egyptian opposition figure Ayman Nour’s phone.
Unnamed Chinese operation
“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.
Twitter Must Reveal Measures on Online Hate, French Court Rules
By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 20 January 2022
A Paris court on Thursday ruled that Twitter must reveal its measures for fighting hate speech, in one of several cases thrashing out whether the French justice system has jurisdiction over the US social media giant.
Ireland-based Twitter International had appealed a July decision ordering it to share documents and details about its French moderation team and data on their activities against hate speech.
That case had been brought by several anti-discrimination groups over what they said was the company’s longstanding failure to properly moderate posts.
The appeals court on Thursday confirmed the first judgement and further ordered Twitter to pay EUR 1,500 (roughly Rs. 1.2 lakh) to the groups, including SOS Racisme, SOS Homophobie and the International League against racism and anti-Semitism (Licra).
In another Paris case, three victims of terrorist attacks who have suffered online harassment are suing Twitter France.
They argue it was the company’s fault that their cases against their harassers failed, as it did not provide identifying information that investigators had asked for.
In that case, Twitter France chief Damien Viel told a court last week that “I’m in charge of Twitter’s business development and nothing more”.
Providing data to the authorities was “up to the good will of Twitter International, which is outside French jurisdiction and can decide whether to cooperate or not,” his lawyer Karim Beylouni added.
In still another case in Versailles, just outside Paris, Twitter France has said it is unable to comply with a police request for information on people who sent insults and threats to a public official.
The local office says it does not store any information, with all data handled by the group’s European mothership based in Ireland.
But prosecutors have asked for fines as high as EUR 75,000 (roughly Rs. 63 lakh) against both Twitter France and manager Viel personally.
Facebook-Parent Meta’s VR Oculus Business Said to Be Probed by US States Over Potential Violations
By Reuters | Updated: 15 January 2022
Multiple states have begun investigating potential violations in how Facebook, now known as Meta Platforms, runs its virtual-reality Oculus business, according to three sources familiar with the matter.
Two of the sources said the US Federal Trade Commission was also involved in the antitrust investigation. Meta did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
New York, North Carolina and Tennessee were among the states involved in the inquiry, one source said. A group of almost 50 states also asked an appeals court on Friday to reinstate their antitrust lawsuit, filed in December 2020, against Facebook.
The inquiries into Facebook’s Oculus business are part of the larger probe, one of the sources said.
The offices of the New York, North Carolina and Tennessee attorneys general did not immediately respond to requests for comments.
The inquiry was first reported by Bloomberg News.
© Thomson Reuters 2022
Facebook Faces GBP 2.3-Billion UK Class Action Over Market Dominance
By Reuters | Updated: 14 January 2022
Facebook, now known as Meta Platforms, faces a GBP 2.3 billion (roughly Rs. 23,420 crore)-plus class action in Britain over allegations it abused its market dominance by exploiting the personal data of 44 million users.
Liza Lovdahl Gormsen, a senior adviser to Britain’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) watchdog and a competition law academic, said she was bringing the case on behalf of people in Britain who had used Facebook between 2015 and 2019.
The lawsuit, which will be heard by London’s Competition Appeal Tribubal, alleges Facebook made billions of pounds by imposing unfair terms and conditions that demanded consumers surrender valuable personal data to access the network.
Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, the law firm representing Lovdahl Gormsen, has notified Facebook of the claim.
Facebook said people used its services because it delivered value for them and “they have meaningful control of what information they share on Meta’s platforms and who with.”
The case comes days after Facebook lost an attempt to strike out an antitrust lawsuit by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), one of the biggest challenges by the US government against a tech company in decades as Washington attempts to tackle Big Tech’s extensive market power.
“In the 17 years since it was created, Facebook became the sole social network in the UK where you could be sure to connect with friends and family in one place,” Lovdahl Gornsen said.
“Yet, there was a dark side to Facebook; it abused its market dominance to impose unfair terms and conditions on ordinary Britons, giving it the power to exploit their personal data.”
Lovdahl Gormsen alleges Facebook collected data within its platform and through mechanisms like the Facebook Pixel, allowing it to build an “all-seeing picture” of Internet usage and generate valuable, deep data profiles of users.
Opt-out class actions, like Lovdahl Gormsen’s, bind a defined group automatically into a lawsuit unless individuals opt out.
© Thomson Reuters 2022
Twitter, Meta, YouTube Among Tech Giants Subpoenaed by January 6 US Capitol Riot Panel
By Associated Press | Updated: 14 January 2022
Months after requesting documents from more than a dozen social platforms, the House committee investigating the US Capitol insurrection has issued subpoenas targeting Twitter, Meta, Reddit and YouTube after lawmakers said the companies’ initial responses were inadequate.
The committee chairman, Rep. Bennie Thompson, demanded records Thursday from the companies relating to their role in allegedly spreading misinformation about the 2020 election and promoting domestic violent extremism on their platforms in the lead-up to the insurrection on January 6, 2021.
“Two key questions for the Select Committee are how the spread of misinformation and violent extremism contributed to the violent attack on our democracy, and what steps — if any — social media companies took to prevent their platforms from being breeding grounds for radicalisng people to violence,” Thompson, D-Miss., said in the letter.
Thompson added that it’s “disappointing that after months of engagement,” the four companies have not voluntarily turned over the necessary information and documents that would help lawmakers answer the questions at the heart of their investigation.
In his letter, Thompson outlined the way the companies were complicit in the deadly insurrection perpetrated by supporters of Donald Trump and far-right groups.
YouTube, owned by Alphabet, was the platform where a significant amount of communication took place “relevant to the planning and execution” of the siege against the Capitol, “including livestreams of the attack as it was taking place,” the letter stated.
In a statement to the Associated Press, a YouTube spokesperson said it is “actively cooperating” with the committee and is committed to stopping content that incites violence or undermines faith in elections.
”We enforced these policies in the run-up to January 6 and continue to do so today,” the spokesperson wrote.
The committee also outlined how how Meta, formerly known as Facebook, was reportedly used to exchange hateful, violent and inciting messages between users as well as spread misinformation that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent in an attempt to coordinate the “Stop the Steal” movement.
In response, Meta said it too was working with the committee to get lawmakers the information they requested.
On Reddit, the r/The_Donald “subreddit” community grew significantly, the letter said, before members migrated to an official website where investigators believe discussions around the planning of the attack were hosted. A spokesperson for Reddit said Thursday that the company had received the subpoena and “will continue to work with the committee on their requests.”
The letter further detailed how Twitter was warned about the potential violence that was being planned on its platform in advance of the attack and how its users engaged in “communications amplifying allegations of election fraud, including by the former President himself.”
One specific tweet from Trump on December 19, 2020 was highlighted: “Statistically impossible to have lost the 2020 Election” as he urged followers to come to Washington to engage in a “wild” protest on January 6, 2021.
A spokesperson for Twitter declined to comment on the subpoenas.
The committee made its initial request for the documents from 15 social media companies in August, which also included TikTok, Parler, Telegram, 4chan, and 8kun.
The subpoenas come as the nine-member committee continues its wide-reaching investigation into how a mob was able to infiltrate the Capitol and disrupt the certification of Democrat Joe Biden’s presidential victory, in what was the most serious assault on Congress in two centuries.
The committee of seven Democrats and two Republicans has interviewed more than 340 people and issued dozens of subpoenas to those in Trump’s inner circle, including his former chief of staff, as well as requests to their own colleagues in the House.
On Wednesday, the committee requested an interview with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
McCarthy as well as GOP Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Scott Perry of Pennsylvania have denied the committee’s request to sit down for interviews or turn over documents related to their conversations on January 6, 2021, with Trump or those close to him as hundreds of his supporters beat police, stormed the building and interrupted the certification of the 2020 election.
Twitter Ban Lifted in Nigeria After Seven Months, Company to Open Office in the Country
By Associated Press | Updated: 13 January 2022
The Nigerian government has lifted its ban on Twitter in the West African country, seven months after the country’s more than 200 million people were shut out of the social media network.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari directed that Twitter’s operations will resume in the country on Thursday, according to the director-general of the country’s National Information Technology Development Agency. Kashifu Inuwa Abdullahi said that was only after Twitter agreed to meet some conditions, including opening an office in Nigeria.
Nigeria suspended Twitter’s operation on June 4, citing “the persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.” The action triggered criticisms as it came shortly after the social media network deleted a post by Buhari in which he threatened to treat separatists “in the language they will understand.”
“Our action is a deliberate attempt to recalibrate our relationship with Twitter to achieve the maximum mutual benefits for our nation without jeopardising the justified interests of the company. Our engagement has been very respectful, cordial, and successful,” Abdullahi said in a statement.
A spokesperson for Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In addition to registering in Nigeria during the first quarter of 2022, Abdullahi said Twitter has also agreed to other conditions including appointing a designated country representative, complying with tax obligations, and acting “with a respectful acknowledgement of Nigerian laws and the national culture and history on which such legislation has been built.”
Meta Makes Booster Shots Mandatory for Returning Workers, Office Reopening Delayed
By Reuters | Updated: 11 January 2022
Facebook parent Meta Platforms has delayed its US office reopening date and mandated COVID-19 booster shots for employees returning to office, joining the growing list of companies revamping reopening plans as Omicron surges.
For employees who opt to work from office, the reopening date has been delayed to March 28 from the earlier plan of January 31, the tech giant said on Monday.
All workers returning to office will have to present proof of their booster jabs, while the company closely monitors the Omicron variant situation, it said. Meta currently requires all its US employees coming to office to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Employees have until March 14 to decide whether to return to the office, request to work remotely full time or request to work from home temporarily.
Employees who are not vaccinated for medical or religious reasons can request such remote work, a spokesperson said. “Employees who take no action can face disciplinary measures, including termination. Obviously, this would be a last resort,” the spokesperson said by email.
Corporate America has doubled down on vaccination mandates and delayed back-to-office plans as the Omicron variant drives up infections to record levels across the country.
Last week, Citigroup said its US staff who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19 by Jan. 14 will be placed on unpaid leave and fired at the end of the month.
In December, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp had offered an option to defer returning to office.
© Thomson Reuters 2022
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