Yet Another Former Israeli Intelligence Officer Linked To Yet Another Shady Company Offering Hacking Tools
I’m not sure what’s happening inside Israel’s intelligence services, but it’s not sending the world its best when it’s done with them.
For months, we’ve been covering tons of negative news generated by tech companies started up by former Israeli government employees. Most of this has been focused on NSO Group, a malware merchant with tons of malicious customers whose phone-targeting, amped-up stalkerware has been linked to misuse by human rights violators around the world. It has also been linked to misuse by countries that generally try to keep their human rights violations in check.
The same can be said for Candiru, another Israeli startup featuring former government operatives. Like NSO Group, Candiru’s inability to be more selective about who it sells to has netted it sanctions from the US government.
Then there’s Cytrox, another spyware company formed by former Israeli intelligence agencies. This company is at the center of a domestic surveillance debacle in Greece, one that has led to the resignation of the head of the country’s intelligence service.
While it’s true these companies can’t necessarily control the use of the products and services they sell, it seems like more than a coincidence that all of these companies were founded by former intelligence operatives. This suggests there’s something a bit off about the intelligence mindset in Israel. Operatives tasked with defending a nation that’s always in a state of conflict are rolling back into the private sector with plenty of ideas but little in the way of morals and ethics.
It cannot be a coincidence that customers routinely abuse the powerful products these obviously very intelligent people create. Some of that can be chalked up to the normal government desire to abuse power. But I would think some of this has to be traced back to the sales pitches and customer cultivation tactics deployed by these companies — something that perhaps pushes government customers into exploring some extremely gray areas in the surveillance arena.
These companies may have some form of plausible deniability since it’s their customers doing the actual abusing. The same can’t be said from another Israeli tech firm founded by a former Israeli special forces officer — one recently exposed by The Guardian in a blockbuster article that details the company’s CIA-esque kingmaking efforts.
A team of Israeli contractors who claim to have manipulated more than 30 elections around the world using hacking, sabotage and automated disinformation on social media has been exposed in a new investigation.
The unit is run by Tal Hanan, a 50-year-old former Israeli special forces operative who now works privately using the pseudonym “Jorge”, and appears to have been working under the radar in elections in various countries for more than two decades.
“Team Jorge.” The banal name belies the destructive nature of the private firm’s offerings and tactics. There’s no plausible deniability here. Sure, the unnamed company sells services to end users, but it performs the dirty work itself. According to the joint investigation involving 30 news outlets worldwide and coordinated by French nonprofit Forbidden Stories, “Team Jorge” controls thousands of fake social media profiles across several services to bury negative news, spread misinformation, and otherwise serve the needs of its questionable customers who are located all over the world. The “team” has apparently done work in Africa, Central and South America, Europe, and even the United States.
Undercover work has exposed even more about the company, including a pretty fucking unsavory sales pitch.
In more than six hours of secretly recorded meetings, Hanan and his team spoke of how they could gather intelligence on rivals, including by using hacking techniques to access Gmail and Telegram accounts. They boasted of planting material in legitimate news outlets, which are then amplified by the Aims bot-management software.
Much of their strategy appeared to revolve around disrupting or sabotaging rival campaigns: the team even claimed to have sent a sex toy delivered via Amazon to the home of a politician, with the aim of giving his wife the false impression he was having an affair.
It’s not just disinformation campaigns and election meddling. It’s also things that aren’t all that far away from extortion and blackmail. And what the firm offers appears to work, at least according to “Team Jorge’s” founder, Tal Hanan. While it’s pretty sad a company so well-versed in subterfuge was unable to sniff out the interlopers and their recording devices, it does at least provide us with the sort of frank admissions no one will ever get on the record.
In his initial pitch to the potential clients, Hanan claimed: “We are now involved in one election in Africa … We have a team in Greece and a team in [the] Emirates … You follow the leads. [We have completed] 33 presidential-level campaigns, 27 of which were successful.” Later, he said he was involved in two “major projects” in the US but claimed not to engage directly in US politics.
Also demonstrated for the undercover journalists: Hanan’s semi-automatic bogus account creation tool which generates fake accounts with years of backstory almost instantly. Hanan also allowed the reporters to watch as he manipulated a hacked Gmail account and showed how easy it was to manipulate Telegram accounts by leveraging known SS7 vulnerabilities.
Despite all these admissions of highly questionable behavior, Hanan continues to deny any wrongdoing. But meddling in foreign elections is always wrong, as is providing cover-up services for entities that feel there’s something that needs to be covered up.
And, again, we’re back looking at Israel and its existence as the current epicenter of souped-up surveillance and hacking tools that have been crafted by former government employees — employees who now seem far too willing to use their powers for evil… or at least sell them to someone willing to use them for evil. Israel’s government has a problem. But the problem with that problem is none of this involves current employees, which means its response will likely be too limited to actually deter future employees from heading into the private sector to partner with havoc-wreakers around the world. It’s time for the Israel’s intelligence services to take a long look at their internal culture because there’s some sort of rot in desperate need of being rooted out.