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Israeli “black ops” contractors used hacking and misinformation to influence elections worldwide

Jerusalem24 – A team of Israeli contractors has been exposed after influencing election outcomes across Africa, South and Central America, the US and Europe, an undercover investigation involving 30 news organizations worldwide has revealed.

Codenamed “Team Jorge”, the unit is run by 50-year-old former Israeli special forces operative Tal Hanan and operates from an office based in the Israeli city-settlement of Modi’in which straddles the Green Line. It is unclear whether the office is based inside Israel or the occupied West Bank.

According to three undercover journalists from Haaretz, Radio France, and The Marker, Team Jorge offers intelligence agencies, political campaigns and corporate clients the ability to “secretly manipulate public opinion” via a software package named Advanced Impact Media Solutions, or Aims. The software controls 30,000 fake social media profiles and bots across all major social media platforms, which it uses to disseminate “mass messages”, “propaganda”, and fake news stories planted in legitimate news outlets.

Hanan boasted to the undercover reporters of having influenced over 30 elections through the use of hacking and implanting fake correspondence and information which was then “leaked” to media outlets, amongst other methods.

Dr. Yasser Al-Amouri, Professor of International Law at Birzeit University, tells Jerusalem24 that although international law “is not keeping up” with technological advances, Team Jorge’s methods constitute cyber-attacks and can therefore be considered “unlawful use of power”.

“Intervening in other countries’ internal affairs through technology is forbidden internationally,” he says. “Using power – not only military power – to destabilize a country’s political union through cyber-attacks, in this case, is against international law.”

Israeli tech – and government – in the spotlight

An increasing number of Israeli cyber firms have been coming to international attention over their involvement in a variety of spyware and election-meddling scandals.

Separately to the “Team Jorge” investigation, Haaretz exposed today Israeli-owned Percepto International as a “factory for online deception” using tactics such as slandering the International Red Cross and running a fake investigative journalism site. An apparently previous iteration of the same company, Psy Group, was investigated by the FBI when it was suspected they offered their services to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016.

Multiple states worldwide have been exposed in recent years as clients of various Israeli spyware firms, and Israeli companies such as the now-infamous NSO Group have provoked public and state outrage when their software was linked to the high-profile hacking of journalists or human rights defenders, including two women close to murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In August, a network of Facebook and Instagram accounts that was run by Israeli PR firm Mind Force and that sought to elicit “confessions” from Palestinians in Gaza and foment discontent with Hamas was taken down by Meta.

Haaretz exposed in December Israeli cyber firm Toka, which sells technologies allowing its clients to hack into nearby security cameras or private webcams and alter their feed.

US Congressmen have recently sought answers over the FBI’s use of spyware sold by NSO as well as Israeli firm Paragon, and Axios revealed earlier this year that Israeli officials had been “pushing” the Biden administration to remove NSO from a blacklist, underscoring the affiliation between the Israeli state and its private security firms, a large number of which are run by current or former members of the military or security establishment.

The journalists investigating Hanan’s team found that a number of his disinformation operations were run through Israeli company Demoman International, which is listed by the Israeli Ministry of Defense on their website promoting Israeli-developed security, surveillance, cyber, and weapons exports.

The Israeli Ministry of Defense did not respond to The Guardian’s requests for comment.

Hanan described his team to the undercover journalists as “graduates of government agencies” with expertise in finance, social media, and “psychological warfare”.

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