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Meta bans Indian surveillance-for-hire company Belltrox from its platforms including Facebook

Impersonation and other social engineering hacks allegedly used by the firm were uncovered in a joint investigation.

Facebook’s parent company Meta has banned surveillance-for-hire companies, including one from India called BellTrox, from its platforms following an investigation into their activities by Citizen Lab and Meta.

In its report, Meta said that it has removed 400 Facebook accounts linked to the India-based company called BellTrox which was allegedly being used for reconnaissance, social engineering, and to send malicious links.

Surveillance-for-hire companies have been in the public eye in India after NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware allegedly targeting several activists was reported in 2019. The same issue came up on a much higher scale earlier this year, with reports of Pegasus potentially being used to surveil Indian political leaders, journalists, human rights activists, businessmen, military officials, intelligence agency officials, and many others. Since then, these companies have been under the scanner of governments, social media platforms, and regulators.

BellTrox operated on Facebook between 2013 and 2019

Facebook said that between 2013 and 2019, BellTrox operated fake accounts to impersonate a politician and pose as journalists and environmental activists in an attempt to social engineer its targets for soliciting information including email addresses.

This activity, based on the exact same playbook, re-started in 2021 with a small number of accounts impersonating journalists and media personalities to send phishing links and solicit the targets’ email addresses. Among those targeted were lawyers, doctors, activists, and members of the clergy in countries including Australia, Angola, Saudi Arabia, and Iceland — Meta said in the report.

Earlier in 2020, Reuters had reported how New Delhi-based BellTrox had targeted government officials in Europe, gambling tycoons in the Bahamas, and investors in the United States including private equity company KKR. They are being investigated by US law enforcement, the report said.

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Meta took action against 6 other surveillance-for-hire companies

Cobwebs Technologies: Meta removed 200 accounts operated by Cobwebs and its customers worldwide, the platform said in the report. “This firm was founded in Israel with offices in the United States and sells access to its platform that enables reconnaissance across the internet, including Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Twitter, Flickr, public websites and “dark web” sites,” Meta added.

Cognyte: Meta removed about 100 accounts on Facebook and Instagram which were linked to Cognyte (formerly known as WebintPro) and its customers, Meta added. This firm was also based in Israel.

Black Cube: Another Israeli-based company, Black Cube provides surveillance services that include social engineering and intelligence gathering. “We removed about 300 Facebook and Instagram accounts linked to Black Cube…,” Meta said.

Bluehawk CI: “We removed about 100 Facebook accounts linked to Bluehawk, a firm based in Israel with offices in the UK and the US,” Meta said.

Cytrox: Cytrox is a North Macedonian company that develops exploits and sells surveillance tools and malware that enable its clients to compromise iOS and Android devices. “We removed about 300 accounts on Facebook and Instagram linked to Cytrox,” it said.

Unknown entity in China: “We removed about 100 Facebook and Instagram accounts linked to an unidentified entity in China responsible for developing surveillanceware for Android, iOS, Windows, and also Linux, Mac OS X, and Solaris operating systems,” it added.

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Among other subjects, I cover the increasing usage of emerging technologies, especially for surveillance in India

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.

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