The study, which examines how Team Jorge, an Israeli firm involved in destabilizing democracies, is operating in India and the rest of the world, is part of a larger investigation into the fake news industry and has been organized by Forbidden Stories.
A new investigation has identified a group of Israeli contractors who claim to have hacked, sabotaged, and programmed disinformation on social media to influence more than 30 elections globally.
Tal Hanan, a 50-year-old former Israeli special forces agent who now works privately under the alias “Jorge,” appears to have been operating covertly in elections for more than 20 years in a number of different nations.
A worldwide group of journalists is revealing who he is. Undercover video and documents that were leaked have revealed Hanan and his group, known by the alias “Team Jorge.”
When asked in-depth questions regarding Team Jorge’s operations and strategies, Hanan merely responded, “I deny any wrongdoing.”
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The study exposes astounding details about how Team Jorge, which operates a private firm offering to discreetly interfere in elections without leaving a trace, weaponizes disinformation. Additionally, the team serves business clients.
Hanan informed the undercover journalists that intelligence services, political campaigns, and private businesses seeking to covertly sway public opinion may use his services, which some refer to as “black ops.” He said that they had been employed in South and Central America, the US, and Europe in addition to Africa.
Advanced Impact Media Solutions, sometimes known as Aims, is a complex software program that is one of Team Jorge’s core offerings. It is in charge of a sizable army of tens of thousands of fictitious accounts on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Telegram, Gmail, Instagram, and YouTube.
A group of journalists from 30 outlets, including Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and El Pas, conducted the investigation on Team Jorge. The study, which is part of a larger inquiry into the fake news industry, has been organized by Forbidden Stories, a French nonprofit organization whose goal is to support the reporting of assassinated, intimidated, or imprisoned journalists.
Three reporters who contacted Team Jorge while masquerading as potential customers captured the covert video.
Hanan and his crew discussed how they could obtain information on rivals in more than six hours of covertly recorded talks, including by utilizing hacking tactics to access Gmail and Telegram accounts. They boasted of inserting content into reliable news sources, which the Aims bot-management program then boosted.
The crew even claimed to have sent a sex toy sent via Amazon to the home of a politician with the intention of giving his wife the false impression he was having an affair. Much of their approach seems to focus on disrupting or destroying rival campaigns.
Big internet platforms, which have for years fought to stop evil actors from disseminating misleading information or jeopardizing the security of their platforms, face new hurdles as a result of the approaches and techniques detailed by Team Jorge. Alarm bells will also go out for democracies all over the world if there is evidence of a private worldwide market for disinformation directed at elections.
Israel may suffer embarrassment as a result of the Team Jorge revelations. Israel has been the target of increasing international pressure in recent years due to its export of cyberweaponry that threatens democracy and human rights.
The Israeli company Demoman International, which is listed on a website sponsored by the Israeli Ministry of Defense to promote defense exports, appears to have been used by Hanan to conduct at least some of his disinformation operations. Inquiries for comment were not answered by the Israeli MoD.
The undercover footage
It is probably surprising that Hanan and his associates allowed themselves to be exposed by undercover reporters given their proficiency in deception. Journalists using traditional techniques have had a difficulty exposing the disinformation industry, which goes to great lengths to avoid being discovered.
Therefore, the surreptitiously recorded meetings—which took place between July and December 2022—offer a unique glimpse into the workings of paid disinformation.
Three journalists, representing Radio France, Haaretz, and TheMarker, approached Team Jorge while posing as advisors for an African nation that was politically unstable and sought assistance in postponing an election.
Video calls and a face-to-face meeting were held with Hanan and his coworkers at Team Jorge’s base, an unmarked office in an industrial park in Modi’in, 20 miles outside of Tel Aviv.
Hanan described his team as “graduates of government agencies,” working out of six offices globally, and having competence in the financing, social media, campaigns, and “psychological warfare.” Four of Hanan’s coworkers, including his brother Zohar Hanan, who was referred to be the organization’s CEO, were present at the meetings.
In his initial pitch to the potential clients, Hanan claimed: “We are now involved in one election in Africa … We have a team in Greece and a team in [the] Emirates … You follow the leads. [We have completed] 33 presidential-level campaigns, 27 of which were successful.” Later, he said he was involved in two “major projects” in the US but claimed not to engage directly in US politics.
In the undercover meetings, it was impossible to confirm all of Team Jorge’s assertions, and Hanan might have embellished them in order to strike a lucrative agreement with potential clients. Hanan, for instance, might have exaggerated his rates while describing the price of his services.
Team Jorge informed the journalists that they would accept payments in a number of different currencies, including cash or cryptocurrencies like bitcoin. For interfering with elections, he stated that he would demand between €6 million and €15 million.
Emails that were leaked, however, show Hanan quoting lower fees. One report claims that he requested $160,000 from the now-defunct British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica in 2015 in exchange for taking part in an eight-week campaign in a Latin American nation.
Hanan tried again, this time in Kenya, to land a job with Cambridge Analytica in 2017, but the firm turned him down, stating that “$400,000-$600,000 per month, and much more for crisis response” was more than its clients would be willing to pay.
‘I will show you how safe Telegram is’
Hanan’s demonstrations of his team’s hacking skills, in which he showed the reporters how he could access Gmail and Telegram accounts, were no less ominous. In one instance, he displayed the Gmail account of a man identified as the “assistant of an important guy” in the next general election in Kenya.
Hanan remarked as he scrolled through the target’s emails, draught folders, contacts, and discs, “Today, if someone has a Gmail, it means they have much more than just email.” Then he demonstrated how he allegedly could access accounts on the encrypted messaging software Telegram.
One of the Telegram accounts he claimed to have accessed belonged to a user in Indonesia, while the other two appeared to be linked to Kenyans who were active in the general election and familiar with William Ruto, the candidate who ultimately won the presidency.
“I know in some countries they believe Telegram is safe. I will show you how safe it is, ” he said before displaying a screen on which it appeared that he was scrolling through the Telegram connections of a Kenyan strategist who was then working for Ruto.
Hanan then gave a demonstration of how Telegram access could be used to cause trouble.
Hanan seemed to send a message from the Kenyan strategist’s account to one of their contacts by typing “hello how are you dear.” Hanan bragged, “I’m not just watching,” before outlining how tricking the messaging app into sending messages may be used to disrupt a rival’s election campaign.
“One of the biggest thing is to put sticks between the right people, you understand,” he said. “And I can write him what I think about his wife, or what I think about his last speech, or I can tell him that I promised him to be my next chief of staff, OK?”
Hanan then demonstrated how he could “delete” the message after it had been read in order to hide his footprints. Hanan made a mistake when he tried that same approach again and gained access to the Telegram account of Ruto’s second close adviser.
He failed to properly erase the harmless Telegram message he sent to one of the hacking victim’s contacts, which had merely the number “11”.
Afterward, a reporter from the consortium was able to locate the person who received that message and was given permission to look through their phone. On their Telegram account, the “11” message was still visible, demonstrating the legitimacy of Team Jorge’s account invasion.
Hanan claimed to the spies that some of his hacking techniques took use of SS7 vulnerabilities, a worldwide signaling telecoms system that has long been viewed as a weak point in the telecoms network.
The company that runs Gmail declined to comment. The SS7 vulnerabilities issue, according to Telegram, is a well-known issue that “is not unique to Telegram.” They added: “Accounts on any massively popular social media network or messaging app can be vulnerable to hacking or impersonation unless users follow security recommendations and take proper precautions to keep their accounts secure.”
Recently, documents and emails that were stolen have revealed how Xandr used a secret blacklist to defund alternative news by targeting unpopular speech and blocking conservative websites.
Hanan refused to answer to in-depth inquiries for comment, stating that he required “approval” from an unidentified authority. However, he added: “To be clear, I deny any wrongdoing.”
His brother and business partner, Zohar Hanan, continued, “I have been working all my life according to the law!”