Israeli operative leading secretive unit 'manipulating elections' around the world
Tal Hanan, a former Israeli special forces agent, led a team of operatives that sought to meddle in election outcomes using misinformation, hacking and sabotage.
The undercover investigation was carried out by a consortium of journalists from 30 media organisations including Haaretz, Le Monde and Der Spiegel.
Three of the undercover reporters obtained footage and leaked documents after posing as consultants working for an African country that wanted to delay an election.
Hanan’s unit, which is based in Israel and calls itself Team Jorge, says its services are available to political and private clients, as well as intelligence agencies. It claims to have been used in Africa, South and Central America, the US and Europe.
One of the methods Team Jorge used was fake social media profiles, the investigation revealed.
It used Advanced Impact Media Solutions (AIMS) software to control over 30,000 fake accounts, which would go on to spread disinformation online. The accounts were each given years-long digital backstories to lend legitimacy.
Hanan told the reporters that the fake profiles would use his “blogger machine” - an automated system that creates websites for spreading fake news.
Team Jorge said it planted material in genuine news outlets too, which were then amplified by the fake blogs and accounts.
“After you’ve created credibility, what do you do? Then you can manipulate,” Hanan told the undercover reporters.
Hacking and sabotage
Hanan also boasted about directly hacking prominent figures on behalf of his clients, mainly through Gmail and Telegram.
He claimed to have penetrated two figures close to Kenyan President William Ruto, in the run-up to last year’s general election.
One of the methods cited for such hacking was exploiting vulnerabilities in SS7, the global signalling telecoms systems.
Elsewhere, the group was involved in direct sabotage. In one instance, Team Jorge claimed it sent a sex toy to the home of a politician to make his wife think he was having an affair.
When asked about Team Jorge's activities and methods, Hanan claimed that he would need "approval" from an unspecified authority to comment, but denied any wrongdoing, according to the Guardian.
According to the report, some of the disinformation operations were run through Demoman International, an Israel security firm for which Hanan serves as chief executive.
The firm is listed on an Israeli defence ministry-run website as an official strategic intelligence company, according to the investigation.
Israel has faced repeated criticism and diplomatic pressure over spyware and other cyber weapons being developed in the country undermining democracy and human rights around the world.
Pegasus, military-grade spyware made by the Israel-based NSO Group, has faced legal action after allegations its tools were misused by governments and other agencies to hack the mobile phones of activists and senior politicians in several countries.