Just when observers might have thought that Israel would have cleaned up its name in the private sector offensive cyber and social media influence campaigns sphere by moving beyond prior NSO Group allegation-scandals, “Team Jorge” has ruined the party.
According to a report by the Guardian on Wednesday, Team Jorge is a team of Israeli contractors, including former intelligence and special forces officials, who are responsible for having manipulated more than 30 elections around the world through hacking, sabotage and automated misinformation.
If true, this would be a new large black-eye for the Israeli cybersecurity establishment. It would also re-raise the question: how can the Jewish state prevent its former intelligence agents from using their skills in the private sector in violation of human rights and democratic elections?
For years, NSO managed to dodge major bullets, getting criticized by human rights groups and with negative global media coverage, but pushing through its cyber offense business with the protection of the Israeli government.
Later, it became clear (and which had been hinted for years in Jerusalem Post reports) that the Israeli government had not just retroactively defended NSO, but had actively used NSO and other Israeli private sector groups' cyber offense technologies to ingratiate itself with potential new Middle Eastern and other allies.
But in September 2021, the US blacklisted NSO Group and a bunch of other Israeli cyber offense groups.
Eventually, NSO’s founder, Shalev Hulio, was forced out and most reports indicate that much of the Israeli cyber offense industry which existed prior to September 2021 has fallen apart or is on the ropes.
Israeli cyber and defense officials are of two minds on the NSO saga.
On one hand, many realize that they let NSO or others sometimes go too far in selling to dictatorships with too few strings attached to ensure that cyber weapons were not used to abuse human rights.
On the other hand, many say that since Israeli companies were taken off much of the field, US, Chinese and other foreign companies and governments have stepped in.
In other words, there are not fewer cyber offensive weapons being sold around the world, they are just being sold by others, sometimes by the US, which shoved Israeli companies out (but might be more responsible), and sometimes by countries that are likely to have far fewer restraints than Israeli companies had (China and other dictatorships with advanced technologies.)
So Israel is probably neither happy that it may have sometimes let NSO and others sell to unscrupulous dictators, nor happy that others are taking its business due to Washington’s interference.
Where does Team Jorge fit into this picture?
The Guardian, in partnership with 30 media outlets worldwide, reported that Team Jorge, led by former Israeli special forces operative Tal Hanan, overlaps with Demonan International (where Hanan is CEO), a company endorsed by the Israeli Defense Ministry.
Allegedly, Team Jorge offers their services to those looking to meddle in elections worldwide, as well as to corporate clients.
Next, the report says that a key component of the team's efforts to sway election outcomes is social media, especially Twitter.
According to the Guardian, Team Jorge uses software known as Advanced Impact Media Solutions (AIMS). This software in turn controls over 30,000 fake social media profiles, all of which are used to spread disinformation or propaganda at high speed.
As part of delving into Team Jorge, Hanan, or "Jorge," spoke with undercover reporters from Haaretz, The Marker and Radio France. He told them that he had provided services to intelligence agencies worldwide, in addition to political campaigns and private companies across Africa, South and Central America, the US and Europe.
In addition, Team Jorge allegedly uses a “blogger machine” that creates websites that their fake social media accounts can use to distribute the propaganda at an exponential rate.
The report said that the team sabotaged one election campaign by sending “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 first problem with reining in this sort of behavior from former Israeli intelligence officials is that it is not clear exactly what they are violating – for example, none of the above likely involves disclosing classified information.
Further, it is not clear that much of what Team Jorge does is necessarily explicitly or obviously illegal.
Lying and promoting false rumors during election campaigns is unfortunately something that goes back long before fancy technologies, let alone massive social media machines.
However, since Russia interfered with the US election in 2016 and in other elections worldwide since, many democracies have started to view large social media campaigns, especially if they are run by foreigners, as not only a crime, but a grave national security threat.
Put bluntly, Jerusalem does not want Jews being accused of playing at coups and manipulating the fates of nations – and it especially does not want this to be true.
But how can this be regulated?
Israel could pass a law prohibiting its former intelligence officials from engaging in certain activities, even if those activities are not specifically defined as criminal.
It could even pass such a law regarding all of its citizens, even those who are not alumni of intelligence agencies.
And yet drawing the line between allowing cyber activities to hack “bad guys” and help foreign law enforcement and intelligence agencies or social media campaigns to undermine regimes like the ayatollahs of Iran, versus some very similar activities that Israel would find undesirable, is a very hard line to draw.
There is also the element of competition over certain arenas with countries like China and Russia.
Some of this also gets into the very difficult issue of when is promoting “fake news” going too far in an age when many societies cannot agree about what basic facts are true and what are not.
Until Israel and other democracies sort through some of these hard questions, there will probably be more black eyes and embarrassing situations, regardless of whether one company or team or another is exposed and torpedoed from time to time.