An Israeli company is guilty of spreading disinformation and influencing elections. This is the conclusion of a team of more than a hundred journalists from different countries after lengthy research. The British newspaper The Guardian and the German public broadcaster ZDF, among others, were involved.
For the investigation, three journalists – two Israelis and a Frenchman – went undercover at the “ghost company” in Israel, which is not officially registered anywhere. They posed as advisers to a businessman who allegedly wanted to manipulate the elections in an African country.
The company’s owner, Tal Hanan – who calls himself ‘Jorge’ – told reporters that his organization has tried to influence 33 presidential elections, 27 of which were “successfully”.
The researchers were unable to verify whether this claim is correct and – if so – what exactly that success entailed. According to them, it is certain that Hanan’s company secretly interfered in the presidential elections in Nigeria in 2015, together with the discredited American data company Cambridge Analytica.
Photo of Dutchman used
Tal ‘Jorge’ Hanan’s flagship product is software that allows his company to create more than 30,000 fake profiles on social media. The program allows him to create an online identity in just a few clicks, including a photo, name, date of birth, email address and sometimes even a phone number, credit card or Airbnb account.
The fake accounts are active on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Telegram and Instagram, among others. For one of the fake Twitter profiles with the username Canaelan, the Israeli company used the photo of the Dutchman Tom van Rooijen.
The Twitterbot Canaelan posts messages from the BBC, among other things. His timeline also includes tweets about Taylor Swift and the price of a KitKat.
But according to The Guardian, Canaelan was mainly part of a campaign to discredit the British privacy watchdog ICO. In one of its tweets, the fake account speaks negatively about that organization, just like many other bots from Hanan’s company. It is unclear who the client was and what they wanted to achieve with the campaign.
I know this can happen and even teach about it, but even then you can become a victim yourself.
“Fun is different,” responds Tom van Rooijen, whose photo was used for the fake account. The 25-year-old Dutchman, who ironically gives workshops to students about, among other things, fake news and online ‘troll factories’, thought it was pretty strange to see his photo on another account.
“I know this can happen. I even teach about it, but apparently you can become a victim yourself,” he says. Van Rooijen has since reported the fake account on Twitter, but has to prove his own identity to show that his photo has been stolen. “I have to upload an ID for that, but I prefer not to.”
Gmail and Telegram hacked
According to The Guardian, Van Rooijen is just one of – presumably tens of thousands – unsuspecting internet users whose photo ended up in Hanan’s software. In addition to this type of fraud, his company is also guilty of hacking, according to investigative journalists.
For example, in front of the undercover journalists, he succeeded in breaking into the online accounts of a political adviser from Kenya. He clicked through the advisor’s emails and messages on Gmail and the encrypted messaging service Telegram, writes The Guardian.
At least one Telegram message that Hanan sent on behalf of the consultant in this way was later found by journalists to have reached the recipient’s phone.
‘Don’t do anything wrong’
It is not known who the clients of the Israeli company are exactly. It would in any case concern commercial companies, political parties and security services.
Hanan does not want to comment substantively on the results of the research collective, report the journalists involved. He says he needs “permission” from someone else, it is unclear who. “But to be clear, I didn’t do anything wrong,” he says.
His brother and business partner denies that the company is breaking the rules. “I’ve been working in accordance with the law all my life.”
- Whistleblower: Twitter has no handle on security and fake accounts
- Army of 500 Twitter bots focused on party leaders last year
- What makes the use of Israeli hacking software so controversial?