Facebook says hackers in Pakistan targeted Afghan users amid government collapse

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REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

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Nov 16 (Reuters) - Hackers from Pakistan used Facebook to target people in Afghanistan with connections to the previous government during the Taliban's takeover of the country, the company's threat investigators said in an interview with Reuters.

Facebook (FB.O) said the group, known in the security industry as SideCopy, shared links to websites hosting malware which could surveil people's devices. Targets included people connected to the government, military and law enforcement in Kabul, it said. Facebook said it removed SideCopy from its platform in August.

The social media company, which recently changed its name to Meta, said the group created fictitious personas of young women as "romantic lures" to build trust and trick targets into clicking phishing links or downloading malicious chat apps. It also compromised legitimate websites to manipulate people into giving up their Facebook credentials.

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"It's always difficult for us to speculate as to the end goal of the threat actor," said Facebook's head of cyber espionage investigations, Mike Dvilyanski. "We don't know exactly who was compromised or what the end result of that was."

Major online platforms and email providers including Facebook, Twitter Inc (TWTR.N), Alphabet Inc's (GOOGL.O) Google and Microsoft Corp's (MSFT.O) LinkedIn have said they took steps to lock down Afghan users' accounts during the Taliban's swift takeover of the country this past summer. read more

Facebook said it had not previously disclosed the hacking campaign, which it said ramped up between April and August, due to safety concerns about its employees in the country and the need for more work to investigate the network. It said it shared information with the U.S. State Department at the time it took down the operation, which it said had appeared "well-resourced and persistent."

Investigators also said Facebook had last month disabled the accounts of two hacking groups which it linked to Syria's Air Force Intelligence.

Facebook said one group, known as the Syrian Electronic Army, targeted human rights activists, journalists and others opposing the ruling regime, while the other, known as APT-C-37, targeted people linked to the Free Syrian Army and former military personnel who had joined opposition forces.

Facebook's head of global threat disruption, David Agranovich, said the Syria and Afghanistan cases showed cyber espionage groups leveraging periods of uncertainty during conflicts when people might be more susceptible to manipulation.

The company said a third hacking network in Syria, which it linked to the Syrian government and removed in October, targeted minority groups, activists and members of the People's Protection Units (YPG) and Syria Civil Defense, or White Helmets.

It said this group used Facebook for social engineering and sharing malicious links to attacker-controlled sites mimicking apps and updates around the United Nations, White Helmets, YPG, Facebook-owned WhatsApp and Alphabet's (GOOGL.O) YouTube.

A Facebook spokeswoman said the company had notified about 2,000 users affected by the campaigns in Afghanistan and Syria, the majority in Afghanistan.

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Reporting by Elizabeth Culliford in New York Editing by Matthew Lewis and Jonathan Oatis

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Thomson Reuters

Technology correspondent in New York, reporting on social media companies and their impact. Previously based in San Francisco and London, she worked on digital, graphics and investigative teams and covered the U.S. 2020 presidential election. She was part of a Reuters reporting team that won Gerald Loeb, Scripps Howard and SABEW Best in Business awards.