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Revealed: the hacking and disinformation team meddling in elections

     ‘Team Jorge’ unit exposed by undercover investigation
    Group sells hacking services and access to vast army of fake social media profiles
    Evidence unit behind disinformation campaigns across world
    Mastermind Tal Hanan claims covert involvement in 33 presidential elections
 
by Stephanie Kirchgaessner, Manisha Ganguly, David Pegg, Carole Cadwalladr and Jason Burke

Part 1

A team of Israeli contractors who claim to have manipulated more than 30 elections around the world using hacking, sabotage and automated disinformation on social media has been exposed in a new investigation.

The unit is run by Tal Hanan, a 50-year-old former Israeli special forces operative who now works privately using the pseudonym “Jorge”, and appears to have been working under the radar in elections in various countries for more than two decades.

He is being unmasked by an international consortium of journalists. Hanan and his unit, which uses the codename “Team Jorge”, have been exposed by undercover footage and documents leaked to the Guardian.

Hanan did not respond to detailed questions about Team Jorge’s activities and methods but said: “I deny any wrongdoing.

The investigation reveals extraordinary details about how disinformation is being weaponised by Team Jorge, which runs a private service offering to covertly meddle in elections without a trace. The group also works for corporate clients.

Hanan told the undercover reporters that his services, which others describe as “black ops”, were available to intelligence agencies, political campaigns and private companies that wanted to secretly manipulate public opinion. He said they had been used across Africa, South and Central America, the US and Europe.

One of Team Jorge’s key services is a sophisticated software package, Advanced Impact Media Solutions, or Aims. It controls a vast army of thousands of fake social media profiles on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Telegram, Gmail, Instagram and YouTube. Some avatars even have Amazon accounts with credit cards, bitcoin wallets and Airbnb accounts.

The consortium of journalists that investigated Team Jorge includes reporters from 30 outlets including Le Monde, Der Spiegel and El País. The project, part of a wider investigation into the disinformation industry, has been coordinated by Forbidden Stories, a French nonprofit whose mission is to pursue the work of assassinated, threatened or jailed reporters.

The undercover footage was filmed by three reporters, who approached Team Jorge posing as prospective clients.

In more than six hours of secretly recorded meetings, Hanan and his team spoke of how they could gather intelligence on rivals, including by using hacking techniques to access Gmail and Telegram accounts. They boasted of planting material in legitimate news outlets, which are then amplified by the Aims bot-management software.

Much of their strategy appeared to revolve around disrupting or sabotaging rival campaigns: the team even claimed to have sent a sex toy delivered via Amazon to the home of a politician, with the aim of giving his wife the false impression he was having an affair.

The methods and techniques described by Team Jorge raise new challenges for big tech platforms, which have for years struggled to prevent nefarious actors spreading falsehoods or breaching the security on their platforms. Evidence of a global private market in disinformation aimed at elections will also ring alarm bells for democracies around the world.

The Team Jorge revelations could cause embarrassment for Israel, which has come under growing diplomatic pressure in recent years over its export of cyber-weaponry that undermines democracy and human rights.

Hanan appears to have run at least some of his disinformation operations through an Israeli company, Demoman International, which is registered on a website run by the Israeli Ministry of Defense to promote defence exports. The Israeli MoD did not respond to requests for comment.

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