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Political aides hacked by ‘Team Jorge’ in run-up to Kenyan election

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An Israeli disinformation specialist hired to run covert dirty tricks campaigns in African elections hacked political advisers close to Kenya’s president, William Ruto, in the run-up to last year’s election, an investigation can reveal.

The interference did not prevent Ruto winning the poll, nor the peaceful transfer of power in Kenya, but the revelation highlights the growing risks posed by the involvement of bad actors and paid operatives in the relatively new democratic systems and institutions across Africa.

Tal Hanan, a self-described “chairman” of “Team Jorge”, an Israeli operation run from an industrial park 20 miles north of Tel Aviv, boasted to undercover reporters that he was able to disrupt elections through black ops and disinformation services.

Days before Kenya’s 2022 election, he gave a demonstration of his capabilities, showing how he could use hacking techniques to infiltrate the messages of political advisers.

Hanan’s operations were exposed on Wednesday by the Guardian and an international consortium of reporters led by the French nonprofit Forbidden Stories. In a statement about the investigation, Hanan said: “I deny any wrongdoing.”

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About this investigative series

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The Guardian and Observer have partnered with an international consortium of reporters to investigate global disinformation. Our project, Disinfo black ops, is exposing how false information is deliberately spread by powerful states and private operatives who sell their covert services to political campaigns, companies and wealthy individuals. It also reveals how inconvenient truths can be erased from the internet by those who are rich enough to pay. The investigation is part of Story killers, a collaboration led by Forbidden Stories, a French nonprofit whose mission is to pursue the work of assassinated, threatened or jailed reporters.

The eight-month investigation was inspired by the work of Gauri Lankesh, a 55-year-old journalist who was shot dead outside her Bengaluru home in 2017. Hours before she was murdered, Lankesh had been putting the finishing touches on an article called In the Age of False News, which examined how so-called lie factories online were spreading disinformation in India. In the final line of the article, which was published after her death, Lankesh wrote: “I want to salute all those who expose fake news. I wish there were more of them.”

The Story killers consortium includes more than 100 journalists from 30 media outlets including Haaretz, Le Monde, Radio France, Der Spiegel, Paper Trail Media, Die Zeit, TheMarker and the OCCRP. Read more about this project.

Investigative journalism like this is vital for our democracy. Please consider supporting it today.

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During his meetings with undercover reporters, Hanan never explicitly confirmed he had been hired to work in Kenya and, if so, who his client might be. However, when demonstrating Team Jorge’s capabilities to the journalists, who were posing as prospective clients, Hanan appeared to show them “live” demonstrations of hacks targeting three aides close to Ruto, who was a presidential candidate at the time.

One involved an apparent infiltration of Gmail; the other two involved Telegram accounts.

“So just to give you an example, it’s in the news in recent days, we are now … involved in one … elections [sic] and … in Africa,” Hanan told the reporters on 25 July last year. The vote in Kenya took place on 9 August.

Tal Hanan
Tal Hanan, the leader of Team Jorge, a hacking and disinformation unit. Photograph: Haaretz/TheMarker/Radio France

During the same meeting, Hanan claimed to have “completed 33 different campaigns, presidential-level campaigns” and suggested a significant proportion of these were in Africa.

The demonstration by Hanan raises questions about whether his meddling in the Kenyan election was more widespread than the brief examples shown to the undercover reporters. There is no evidence of who may have been behind any interference or that the political advisers were aware of the hacks.

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Hanan, a 50-year-old former explosives specialist in Israel’s military, showed how, once he had gained access to an account, Team Jorge could send messages without the user’s knowledge or consent. His aim was often “to create confusion” during a campaign, he said, explaining that “the biggest thing is to put sticks between the right people”.

One Telegram account Hanan infiltrated before the Kenyan election belonged to a strategist who is now an aide to the president. Scrolling through the Telegram account and personal chats during a demonstration to the undercover reporters, Hanan showed how, once the hackers had access to accounts, they could send messages to their contacts.

To illustrate this, he sent an oblique message – the number 11 – before deleting it.

Redacted screenshot of Telegram app showing 11 message
Hanan showed how, once the hackers had access to accounts, they could send messages to their contacts. Photograph: Telegram

However, Hanan made a critical mistake and did not fully delete the message. An examination of the recipient’s phone confirmed the falsified message was received. Hanan also seemed to search the files of the hacking victim, appearing to retrieve internal polling data related to the forthcoming election.

In other demonstrations, he appeared to enter the Gmail account and the Telegram account of two other close advisers to Ruto. It is unclear which of these tactics, if any, Hanan deployed in the Kenyan election and what their effect may have been.

Google, which runs the Gmail service, declined to comment.

Telegram said: “Accounts on any massively popular social media network or messaging app can be vulnerable to hacking or impersonation unless users follow security recommendations and take proper precautions to keep their accounts secure.”

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The undercover footage

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What is this undercover footage?

Disinformation operatives work under the radar. To find out more about ‘Team Jorge’, an Israel-based unit selling hacking and social media manipulation services, three journalists went undercover. They posed as consultants, working on behalf of a client in a politically unstable African country who wanted to delay a forthcoming election. The reporters secretly filmed several meetings with the group’s leader, Tal Hanan, who uses the alias ‘Jorge’, and his associates between July 2022 and December 2022. 

Who is in the footage?

The footage captures Hanan, as well as his brother, Zohar Hanan, and other associates of Team Jorge. Faces of reporters have been blurred. The meetings took place on video calls, when Hanan and his colleagues gave slideshow demonstrations of their services, and in person, at Team Jorge’s office in an industrial park 20 miles outside Tel Aviv. 

Who did the secret filming?

It was secretly filmed by three reporters from media outlets working in a consortium investigating disinformation: Gur Megiddo (TheMarker), Frédéric Métézeau (Radio France) and Omer Benjakob (Haaretz). The video was then shared with more than 25 other media outlets in the consortium, including the Guardian and Observer. While the Guardian and Observer were not involved in the undercover filming, they are publishing the material because of the strong public interest justifications for doing so.

What is Team Jorge’s response?

Tal Hanan did not provide a detailed response to questions from the Guardian. He said: ‘To be clear, I do deny any wrongdoing.’

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Hanan’s presentation to the undercover journalists underlines how an international cast of “consultants” has exploited growing social media use and internet penetration in Africa to manipulate and interfere with democratic processes in strategically important countries.

In recent years, dozens of polls across the continent have been marred by allegations that political actors have hired foreign companies to provide a variety of services, from legitimate polling and public relations work to voter suppression.

Documents leaked to the Guardian confirm Team Jorge was involved in the 2015 elections in Nigeria. An analysis of thousands of bots associated with his disinformation software also suggests the team was involved in spreading disinformation in the 2019 presidential election in Senegal.

Hanan also showed the undercover reporters screenshots that suggested he could access the email inboxes of senior government officials elsewhere on the continent, and described employees posing as journalists to gather useful information during election campaigns in Africa.

Though both sides in the 2022 poll in Kenya were accused of manipulation, disinformation and dirty tricks, the elections in the east African country were seen as a significant achievement for its democratic institutions and important for reinforcing regional stability.

Election observers described the most recent poll as “largely peaceful and transparent”. Previous elections in Kenya have been marred by widespread violence. In 2007, polls triggered a crisis and led to more than 1,000 deaths.

Raila Odinga, the veteran politician whose Azimio la Umoja coalition lost the 2022 election by less than 2%, has repeatedly claimed the results of the poll were fraudulent. Kenya’s supreme court rejected his allegations and said they were based on “falsified evidence” in a judgment in September. Independent analysts have also said the claims are unfounded.

Odinga continues to claim the poll was rigged, citing statements by an unidentified former election commission official and a dossier that is still causing controversy in Kenya. He did not respond to requests for comment.

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( With inputs from : www.theguardian.com )

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