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How Undercover Reporters Caught ‘Team Jorge’ & What This Means for India

Team Jorge is said to have interfered with more than 30 elections around the world.

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An investigation by an international consortium of reporters has exposed an Israel-based global disinformation unit called 'Team Jorge' that has allegedly meddled in elections of various countries, including that of India.

Team Jorge is linked with software to operate fake social media campaigns across countries, and is said to have interfered with more than 30 elections around the world, reported The Guardian

The workings of the elaborate undercover operation that shed light on disinformation operatives working in the shadows, was leaked to The Guardian.

Here is all you need to know about the issue and how it affects India. 

How Undercover Reporters Caught ‘Team Jorge’ & What This Means for India

  1. 1. Who Is Team Jorge?

    The operation was reportedly led by Tal Hanan, a 50-year-old former Israeli special forces operative who worked privately using the pseudonym ‘Jorge.’

    During his stint at the Israeli Army Special Forces as an Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) officer, Hanan dealt with global security, defence, intelligence, and law enforcement. Team Jorge comprises hackers who have been working covertly in elections in foreign countries for more than two decades.

    In one of the leaked emails, Hanan quoted his fees at 400,000-600,000 dollars per month.

    Expand
  2. 2. How Was This Uncovered?

    The consortium of journalists that investigated Team Jorge is made up of reporters from 30 news outlets including Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and El País, supported by Forbidden Stories – a Paris-based non-profit organisation.

    Three journalists – Gur Megiddo of TheMarker, Frédéric Métézeau of Radio France, and Omer Benjakob of Haaretz posed as consultants working on behalf of prospective clients. The journalists posed as consultants working on behalf of a businessman who wanted to delay an election in a large and unstable country in Africa.

    Following his moves for more than six months, the journalists secretly filmed the operations as Jorge's team is said to have explained to them how easy it is to access a Gmail account undetected. The Israeli company reportedly confessed to having manipulated 30 elections around the world using hacking, sabotage and automated disinformation on social media, cyber espionage and influence operations.

    Expand
  3. 3. What Were the Key Findings?

    The footage of the undercover operation revealed that Team Jorge’s private office was at an industrial park 20 miles outside Tel Aviv, a city on Israel’s Mediterranean coast.

    Hanan reportedly mentioned completing 33 presidential-level campaigns, of which 27 were successful.

    The secretly recorded six hours of meetings revealed he offered services such as open source intelligence (OSINT), cybersecurity, special operations, intelligence, and hacking activities, including extracting sensitive documents by exploiting vulnerabilities in the global signalling system that are available to intelligence agencies, political campaigns, and private companies interested in secretly manipulating the elections or framing public opinion, reported The Guardian.

    In a bid to show the ease with which he hacked into personal email accounts, Jorge allegedly hacked into the messaging systems of high-level African officials and impersonated conversations with their contacts.

    Interestingly, The Guardian reported that Jorge had referred to Roger Noriega, a former US assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs who served under George W Bush, as his client. Noriega declined to comment on the identity of Jorge and denied having worked for any political campaign. 

    Expand
  4. 4. The Jorge Weapon

    A key tool used by Team Jorge is AIMS (Advanced Impact Media Solutions), a sophisticated software package that controls more than 30,000 fake social media profiles, and can be used to spread disinformation.

    Each avatar is given a multifaceted digital backstory and made to mimic human behaviour. Hanan claimed that AIMS bots were linked to SMS-verified phone numbers, some had credit cards; some had a role to play in a dispute in California over nuclear power, a MeToo controversy in Canada, a campaign in France involving a Qatari UN official named Roger Noriega, who served under George Bush, and was even used to discredit the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

    A much wider network of at least 2,000 AIMS-linked bots on Facebook and Twitter was discovered by the investigation reporters.

    Expand
  5. 5. How Team Jorge and Cambridge Analytica Meddled in Nigeria

    The investigation found that Team Jorge reportedly had a vital role to play in influencing the presidential election in Nigeria. 

    On 17 January 2015, Jorge had reportedly emailed Cambridge Analytica, the political consultancy he was coordinating with on a covert plan to manipulate Africa’s largest democracy.

    The emails accessed by The Guardian revealed the failed plan to discredit Muhammadu Buhari and get Goodluck Jonathan re-elected in 2015. 

    Team Jorge was responsible for ‘opposition research’ whereas the British consultancy was tasked to secure news coverage in international media during the election that would discredit Buhari’s image and benefit Jonathan’s election campaign, the report said. Brittany Kaiser, a young Cambridge Analytica employee who featured prominently in the Netflix documentary The Great Hack, was in direct correspondence with Hanan.

    Expand
  6. 6. Data of Indians Compromised?

    While The Guardian report has not revealed the details of the group's operations in India, a purported video showed that the Israeli group’s cyber tools were used in India too. The opposition Congress party on Thursday, drew parallels between the modus operandi of the Israel-based firm and the IT cell of the BJP.

    The Congress demanded a probe into the alleged interference in Indian elections and asked the ruling party to respond to the exposé.

    “We would like to ask if the government intends to carry out an investigation in this matter. Will there be a Supreme Court monitored probe?,” asked Congress leader Supriya Shrinate.

    "If the government is not doing anything on this, it means it is seeking help to interfere in the country's democracy and elections. The data of Indians is being compromised by handing it over to a foreign firm."
    Congress leader Supriya Shrinate

    She recalled that this was not the first time that the allegations of data theft had plagued the Narendra Modi government. "One of the serious charges that this government faces is data theft and data manipulation to actually tamper with the electoral process. You saw what happened in Karnataka. This government is known to play with big data to its advantage. This is nothing but a murder of democracy," Shrinate alleged.

    Calling attention to the recent Adani Group controversy, Congress leader Pawan Khera asked, “How many companies of Adani gave money to Modi government? Where has he spent it? Pegasus or Jorge?”

    He alleged that India's democracy is being "hijacked" by the country's ruling party.

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

Who Is Team Jorge?

The operation was reportedly led by Tal Hanan, a 50-year-old former Israeli special forces operative who worked privately using the pseudonym ‘Jorge.’

During his stint at the Israeli Army Special Forces as an Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) officer, Hanan dealt with global security, defence, intelligence, and law enforcement. Team Jorge comprises hackers who have been working covertly in elections in foreign countries for more than two decades.

In one of the leaked emails, Hanan quoted his fees at 400,000-600,000 dollars per month.

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

How Was This Uncovered?

The consortium of journalists that investigated Team Jorge is made up of reporters from 30 news outlets including Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and El País, supported by Forbidden Stories – a Paris-based non-profit organisation.

Three journalists – Gur Megiddo of TheMarker, Frédéric Métézeau of Radio France, and Omer Benjakob of Haaretz posed as consultants working on behalf of prospective clients. The journalists posed as consultants working on behalf of a businessman who wanted to delay an election in a large and unstable country in Africa.

Following his moves for more than six months, the journalists secretly filmed the operations as Jorge's team is said to have explained to them how easy it is to access a Gmail account undetected. The Israeli company reportedly confessed to having manipulated 30 elections around the world using hacking, sabotage and automated disinformation on social media, cyber espionage and influence operations.

0

What Were the Key Findings?

The footage of the undercover operation revealed that Team Jorge’s private office was at an industrial park 20 miles outside Tel Aviv, a city on Israel’s Mediterranean coast.

Hanan reportedly mentioned completing 33 presidential-level campaigns, of which 27 were successful.

The secretly recorded six hours of meetings revealed he offered services such as open source intelligence (OSINT), cybersecurity, special operations, intelligence, and hacking activities, including extracting sensitive documents by exploiting vulnerabilities in the global signalling system that are available to intelligence agencies, political campaigns, and private companies interested in secretly manipulating the elections or framing public opinion, reported The Guardian.

In a bid to show the ease with which he hacked into personal email accounts, Jorge allegedly hacked into the messaging systems of high-level African officials and impersonated conversations with their contacts.

Interestingly, The Guardian reported that Jorge had referred to Roger Noriega, a former US assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs who served under George W Bush, as his client. Noriega declined to comment on the identity of Jorge and denied having worked for any political campaign. 

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

The Jorge Weapon

A key tool used by Team Jorge is AIMS (Advanced Impact Media Solutions), a sophisticated software package that controls more than 30,000 fake social media profiles, and can be used to spread disinformation.

Each avatar is given a multifaceted digital backstory and made to mimic human behaviour. Hanan claimed that AIMS bots were linked to SMS-verified phone numbers, some had credit cards; some had a role to play in a dispute in California over nuclear power, a MeToo controversy in Canada, a campaign in France involving a Qatari UN official named Roger Noriega, who served under George Bush, and was even used to discredit the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

A much wider network of at least 2,000 AIMS-linked bots on Facebook and Twitter was discovered by the investigation reporters.

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

How Team Jorge and Cambridge Analytica Meddled in Nigeria

The investigation found that Team Jorge reportedly had a vital role to play in influencing the presidential election in Nigeria. 

On 17 January 2015, Jorge had reportedly emailed Cambridge Analytica, the political consultancy he was coordinating with on a covert plan to manipulate Africa’s largest democracy.

The emails accessed by The Guardian revealed the failed plan to discredit Muhammadu Buhari and get Goodluck Jonathan re-elected in 2015. 

Team Jorge was responsible for ‘opposition research’ whereas the British consultancy was tasked to secure news coverage in international media during the election that would discredit Buhari’s image and benefit Jonathan’s election campaign, the report said. Brittany Kaiser, a young Cambridge Analytica employee who featured prominently in the Netflix documentary The Great Hack, was in direct correspondence with Hanan.

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

Data of Indians Compromised?

While The Guardian report has not revealed the details of the group's operations in India, a purported video showed that the Israeli group’s cyber tools were used in India too. The opposition Congress party on Thursday, drew parallels between the modus operandi of the Israel-based firm and the IT cell of the BJP.

The Congress demanded a probe into the alleged interference in Indian elections and asked the ruling party to respond to the exposé.

“We would like to ask if the government intends to carry out an investigation in this matter. Will there be a Supreme Court monitored probe?,” asked Congress leader Supriya Shrinate.

"If the government is not doing anything on this, it means it is seeking help to interfere in the country's democracy and elections. The data of Indians is being compromised by handing it over to a foreign firm."
Congress leader Supriya Shrinate

She recalled that this was not the first time that the allegations of data theft had plagued the Narendra Modi government. "One of the serious charges that this government faces is data theft and data manipulation to actually tamper with the electoral process. You saw what happened in Karnataka. This government is known to play with big data to its advantage. This is nothing but a murder of democracy," Shrinate alleged.

Calling attention to the recent Adani Group controversy, Congress leader Pawan Khera asked, “How many companies of Adani gave money to Modi government? Where has he spent it? Pegasus or Jorge?”

He alleged that India's democracy is being "hijacked" by the country's ruling party.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Election 

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