Meta says 50,000 users may have been stalked by private surveillance companies

Photo (c) Kira-Yan - Getty Images

The perpetrators have been banished from Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger

Meta has encountered its first major headache under its new moniker. The company formerly known as Facebook has notified 50,000 global users of Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Messenger that they may have been targeted by private surveillance companies. 

Meta said those seven firms carried out a mix of “reconnaissance, engagement, and exploitation,” but they have now been completely barred from the company’s platforms.

Collecting information and compromising accounts

In a blog post describing the issue, Meta said the global “surveillance-for-hire” companies targeted people to collect intelligence and compromise their devices and accounts – not only on Meta’s platforms but across the whole internet in more than 100 countries.

“While these ‘cyber mercenaries’ often claim that their services only target criminals and terrorists, our months-long investigation concluded that targeting is in fact indiscriminate and includes journalists, dissidents, critics of authoritarian regimes, families of opposition and human rights activists,” explained Meta officials David Agranovich and Mike Dvilyanski.

Agranovich and Dvilyanski said Meta is trying to prevent this from happening again by sharing its findings with security researchers, other platforms, and policymakers. The company also issued cease and desist warnings to the companies involved and alerted people who may have been targeted to help them strengthen the security of their various Meta-connected accounts.

What actual good could come out of this

Despite the immediate concern, Meta said in its threat report that there’s actually some good that can come out of this situation. The company is requesting that governments and tech companies come together to work on three key components:

Greater transparency and oversight: Meta sees a need for more international oversight that establishes transparency and “know your customer” standards. These standards would cover social platforms and surveillance-for-hire entities so that they are held accountable.

Industry collaboration: Surveillance efforts show up differently depending on individual platforms, but Meta stated that industry-wide collaboration is critical if Big Tech wants to fully understand and stop adversarial surveillance efforts before they spin out of control.

Governance and ethics: While Facebook’s history is covered with faux pas that put the company’s trustworthiness in question at congressional hearings, Meta says it now welcomes domestic and international efforts to raise accountability through legislation, export controls, and regulatory actions. 

“We also encourage broader conversations about the ethics of using these surveillance technologies by law enforcement and private companies, as well as creating effective victim protection regimes,” Agranovich and Dvilyanski said.

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