Facebook Blocked PA-Connected Hacking Ring Targeting Journalists, Activists

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Acting from the West Bank, the group – allegedly connected to Palestinian intelligence – used ‘low-sophistication malware’ to spy on its targets

In a report released Wednesday, Facebook detailed its actions against two hacker groups from the Palestinian territories that made use of the Facebook platform to spy on Palestinians.

According to the report, the first group targeted journalists, human rights activists and government opposition, among others, and used malware to access phones and computers for spying. This group is connected to the Palestinian Authority’s Preventive Security Service (PSS), an intelligence agency tasked with internal security.

The second group, named Arid Viper, directed its efforts at Fatah members, PA officials and members of security forces, hinting at a possible connection to Fatah-rival Hamas. This second group employed a variety of tactics, all aimed at accessing personal information on phones and computers.

A PSS spokesperson rejected these allegations, telling Reuters that “we respect the media, we work within the law that governs our work.”

Facebook took action against these groups by blocking their accounts, as well as internet domains connected to them. The company also notified the attackers’ targets as well as “industry partners.”

If the allegations are true, the attacks are in keeping with the PA’s suppression of dissidents and critics. Both the PA and Hamas have been harshly criticized by human rights organizations for their employment of suppressive measures. A 2020 report by Amnesty International said that both Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, and Fatah, the organization heading the PA, arrested dozens of protesters, opposition members, activists and journalists throughout the year.

The 2020 annual report of MADA, the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms, noted a decline in the number of attacks on journalists in the Palestinian territories. Yet the report attributes the smaller numbers to lockdown measures enforced because of COVID-19, which lowered the number of interactions between journalists and potential attackers. “The state of media freedoms in Palestine has not witnessed any real positive…