Facebook says it halts hackers tied to Palestinian security

FILE - In this Jan. 22, 2020 file photo, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks after a meeting of the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank city of Ramallah.  Facebook says it has broken up a hacker network linked to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' intelligence service, Wednesday, April 21, 2021. It says the network targeted hundreds of people, including journalists, human rights activists and government critics. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed, File)
FILE - In this Jan. 22, 2020 file photo, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks after a meeting of the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Facebook says it has broken up a hacker network linked to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' intelligence service, Wednesday, April 21, 2021. It says the network targeted hundreds of people, including journalists, human rights activists and government critics. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed, File) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

JERUSALEM – Facebook said Wednesday it has broken up a hacker network used by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' intelligence service in an attempt to keep tabs on journalists, human rights activists and government critics.

The report by the social networking giant threatened to deal another embarrassing blow to Abbas' Fatah party weeks ahead of parliamentary elections. Fatah, plagued by infighting and public malaise, already appears poised to lose power and influence if the vote takes place next month.

In its report, Facebook said that elements linked to the Preventive Security Service “used fake and compromised accounts to create fictitious personas.” Posing as young women, journalists and political activists, they then sought "to build trust with people they targeted and trick them into installing malicious software.”

The malware, disguised as chat applications, would give the security agency access to targets' phones, including contacts, text messages, locations and even keystrokes, Facebook said.

It said the ring, based in the West Bank, targeted people in the Palestinian territories and Syria, and to a lesser extent in Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Libya.

“This persistent threat actor focused on a wide range of targets, including journalists, people opposing the Fatah-led government, human rights activists and military groups including the Syrian opposition and Iraqi military,” it said.

Mike Dvilyanski, Facebook's head of cyber espionage investigations, said the company had used “technical signals and infrastructure” to link the network to Preventive Security. He said Facebook had “high confidence” in its findings, but declined to elaborate.

In all, he said nearly 800 people were targeted. The company said it was impossible to say how many had downloaded the malware or determine what the security agency had done with the information. It said, however, that it believed the effort spread across other online platforms, indicating that there may have been additional targets as well.