Skip to main content

Meta alerts 50,000 users to targeting by ‘surveillance-for-hire’ companies

Meta alerts 50,000 users to targeting by ‘surveillance-for-hire’ companies

/

The users, including journalists and human rights activists, were based in more than 100 countries around the world

Share this story

An image of the Meta logo.
Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Facebook’s parent company Meta has alerted 50,000 users of Facebook and Instagram that their accounts were spied on by commercial “surveillance-for-hire” schemes around the globe.

The users were targeted by seven entities and located in more than 100 countries, according to an update posted on Meta’s news page today.

Targets included journalists, dissidents, critics of authoritarian regimes, families of opposition, and human rights activists, the post said. The surveillance was uncovered in a monthslong investigation in which Meta identified spying groups and removed them from the platform.

“These companies are part of a sprawling industry that provides intrusive software tools and surveillance services indiscriminately to any customer — regardless of who they target or the human rights abuses they might enable,” wrote Meta’s director of threat disruption, David Agranovich, and head of cyber espionage investigations, Mike Dvilyanski. “This industry ‘democratizes’ these threats, making them available to government and non-government groups that otherwise wouldn’t have these capabilities.”

A more detailed threat report released by Meta named six out of the seven companies, and listed one of the entities as unknown. Four of the seven — Cobwebs Technologies, Cognyte, Black Cube, and Bluehawk CI — are based in Israel, with the other three in China, India, and North Macedonia.

In a statement provided to NPR, Black Cube described itself as a “litigation support firm” that used investigation methods compliant with local laws in every jurisdiction in which it operated. Black Cube was previously employed by Harvey Weinstein to try to block publication of a New York Times article that sparked the #MeToo movement.

“The disclosure by Facebook of actions it has taken to disrupt and remove seven private firms selling surveillance services to regimes that abuse human rights, makes it abundantly clear that more must be done to stop this mercenary marketplace,” said Congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA) in a statement. “By enabling indiscriminate surveillance against journalists and political dissidents, among others, these companies pose a clear threat to human rights.”

Meta’s report also referenced the Israeli spyware company NSO Group, which last month was sued by both Apple and Meta for selling spyware used to compromise iPhone and WhatsApp messages. Yesterday, Google researchers published details of a “zero click” exploit developed by NSO Group to hack targets’ phones just by sending a message — a level of offensive capability described by the researchers as comparable to that possessed by nation state actors.

The company has already been blacklisted by the US government for selling software used to spy on journalists around the world. A group of lawmakers including Adam Schiff recently called for the imposition of stricter sanctions on a group of surveillance companies, including NSO Group, that would freeze company bank accounts and bar employees from traveling to the United States.

Today’s Storystream

Feed refreshed Sep 25 Not just you

E
Twitter
Emma RothSep 25
Rihanna’s headlining the Super Bowl Halftime Show.

Apple Music’s set to sponsor the Halftime Show next February, and it’s starting out strong with a performance from Rihanna. I honestly can’t remember which company sponsored the Halftime Show before Pepsi, so it’ll be nice to see how Apple handles the show for Super Bowl LVII.


E
Twitter
Emma RothSep 25
Starlink is growing.

The Elon Musk-owned satellite internet service, which covers all seven continents including Antarctica, has now made over 1 million user terminals. Musk has big plans for the service, which he hopes to expand to cruise ships, planes, and even school buses.

Musk recently said he’ll sidestep sanctions to activate the service in Iran, where the government put restrictions on communications due to mass protests. He followed through on his promise to bring Starlink to Ukraine at the start of Russia’s invasion, so we’ll have to wait and see if he manages to bring the service to Iran as well.


E
External Link
Emma RothSep 25
We might not get another Apple event this year.

While Apple was initially expected to hold an event to launch its rumored M2-equipped Macs and iPads in October, Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman predicts Apple will announce its new devices in a series of press releases, website updates, and media briefings instead.

I know that it probably takes a lot of work to put these polished events together, but if Apple does pass on it this year, I will kind of miss vibing to the livestream’s music and seeing all the new products get presented.


E
External Link
Emma RothSep 24
California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoes the state’s “BitLicense” law.

The bill, called the Digital Financial Assets Law, would establish a regulatory framework for companies that transact with cryptocurrency in the state, similar to New York’s BitLicense system. In a statement, Newsom says it’s “premature to lock a licensing structure” and that implementing such a program is a “costly undertaking:”

A more flexible approach is needed to ensure regulatory oversight can keep up with rapidly evolving technology and use cases, and is tailored with the proper tools to address trends and mitigate consumer harm.


Welcome to the new Verge

Revolutionizing the media with blog posts

Nilay PatelSep 13
A
The Verge
Andrew WebsterSep 24
Get ready for some Netflix news.

At 1PM ET today Netflix is streaming its second annual Tudum event, where you can expect to hear news about and see trailers from its biggest franchises, including The Witcher and Bridgerton. I’ll be covering the event live alongside my colleague Charles Pulliam-Moore, and you can also watch along at the link below. There will be lots of expected names during the stream, but I have my fingers crossed for a new season of Hemlock Grove.


A
Andrew WebsterSep 24
Looking for something to do this weekend?

Why not hang out on the couch playing video games and watching TV. It’s a good time for it, with intriguing recent releases like Return to Monkey Island, Session: Skate Sim, and the Star Wars spinoff Andor. Or you could check out some of the new anime on Netflix, including Thermae Romae Novae (pictured below), which is my personal favorite time-traveling story about bathing.


A screenshot from the Netflix anime Thermae Romae Novae.
Thermae Romae Novae.
Image: Netflix
J
Twitter
Jay PetersSep 23
Twitch’s creators SVP is leaving the company.

Constance Knight, Twitch’s senior vice president of global creators, is leaving for a new opportunity, according to Bloomberg’s Cecilia D’Anastasio. Knight shared her departure with staff on the same day Twitch announced impending cuts to how much its biggest streamers will earn from subscriptions.


T
Twitter
Tom WarrenSep 23
Has the Windows 11 2022 Update made your gaming PC stutter?

Nvidia GPU owners have been complaining of stuttering and poor frame rates with the latest Windows 11 update, but thankfully there’s a fix. Nvidia has identified an issue with its GeForce Experience overlay and the Windows 11 2022 Update (22H2). A fix is available in beta from Nvidia’s website.