Facebook said Wednesday that hackers based in China used the social media platform as part of a campaign to hack and spy on diasporas of Uyghurs, the minority group the country has been accused of putting in “reeducation” camps.
The hackers used Facebook to identify, track, and send malicious links to Uyghur activists, dissidents, and journalists living in the U.S., Australia, Canada, and Turkey, among other countries, Facebook said.
Facebook stopped short of directly blaming the Chinese government for sponsoring the campaign. “We can see geographic attribution based on the activity, but we can’t actually prove who’s behind the operation,” the company’s head of cybersecurity policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, said in a phone call with journalists.
But Facebook did say the hackers are part of the same operation that the cybersecurity company Volexity cited in 2019 as affiliated with the Chinese government. It published blockbuster research that found the country’s hackers had gone to extreme measures to hack and spy on Uyghurs. They used sophisticated, previously unknown tools to load malicious code into multiple Uyghur news sites so that they would hack and spy on nearly any smartphone that visited.
“Who else would have the resources, the time and effort to go after these people? If you told me it was Iceland I’d be pretty surprised,” Volexity’s CEO, Steven Adair, said in a phone call Wednesday.
Facebook’s head of cyber espionage, Mike Dvilyanski, said on the call that while they found and removed fewer than 500 accounts that sent malicious links to Uyghurs, it was “an extremely targeted operation.”
“We were seeing them create personas on Facebook that are designed to look like journalists that focus on issues critical to the Uyghur community, that are designed to look like activists that might be standing up for the Uyghur community, designed to look like members of the community,” Dvilyanski said. “Then use that as a way to trick them into clicking into these links to expose their devices.”
Multiple investigative reports have shown China maintains reeducation camps that detain an estimated one million Uyghurs, an ethnic group largely based in the country’s northwestern Xinjiang region. With omnipresent cameras, face recognition technology, and intense collection of residents’ data, it’s one of the most heavily surveilled areas in the world.
Dozens of countries have jointly condemned China’s treatment of Uyghurs, and the White House sanctioned two Chinese officials over them Monday.
A spokesperson for China’s embassy didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.