Facebook Blocks PA-Connected Hacking Ring Targeting Journalists, Activists

Acting from the West Bank, the group – allegedly connected to Palestinian intelligence – used ‘low-sophistication malware’ to spy on its targets.
April 23, 2021

(The Media Line) 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 and tangible developments that would serve to move away from the path of practices and trends that prevailed during the preceding years,” the report said.

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The Palestinian organization recorded over 400 attacks in 2020, more than half of which it attributed to Israeli forces. Palestinian groups carried out 96 of the attacks; these included arrests, summons and interrogations by security forces. Notably, the report mentions one case of torture at the hands of the Palestinian Authority, carried out by the PSS. The victim, Ayman Faisal Qawareq, was charged with “defaming the authority” according to the report.

The rivalry between Fatah and Hamas may be a factor in the attacks. While the two organizations have taken steps toward reconciliation in recent months, tensions ahead of the Palestinian legislative and presidential elections, scheduled for May 2021 and July 2021, respectively, have not disappeared. With a elections’ postponement currently on the table – ostensibly because Israel hasn’t approved the participation of Palestinians who reside in East Jerusalem – disagreements between the sides may deepen and rise to the surface.

However, Sharif Haj-Ali, a project coordinator at MADA, told The Media Line that the organization “confirms that as of this moment, no violations or attacks on media and press freedoms directly linked to the Palestinian elections have been monitored or documented.”

MADA declined to comment on the Facebook report or the alleged attacks. The Media Line reached out to three Palestinian journalists for their comments on the subject. While all expressed their outrage at the attacks, none were willing to speak on the record for fear of retribution by the PA.

Mohammad Al-Kassim contributed to this report.

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