Hackers in China used fake Facebook accounts and imposter websites to try to break into the computers and smartphones of Uighur Muslims, the social network said on Wednesday.
The company said the sophisticated sting operation targeted Uighur activists, journalists and dissidents from China’s Xinjiang region, as well as people living in Turkey, Kazakhstan, the United States, Syria, Australia, Canada and other nations.
Hackers attempted to gain access to computers and phones by creating fake Facebook accounts for alleged journalists and activists, as well as fake websites and apps aimed at attracting a Uighur audience. In some cases, hackers created similar websites almost identical to legitimate news sites popular with Uighurs.
The accounts and sites contained malicious links. If the target clicked on one, their computer or smartphone would be infected with software that would allow the network to spy on the target’s device.
The software could obtain information, including the victim’s location, keystrokes and contacts, according to FireEye, a cybersecurity firm that worked on the investigation.
In total, hackers attacked fewer than 500 people in 2019 and 2020, Facebook said. The company said it discovered the network during its routine security work and that it deactivated the fictitious accounts and notified people whose devices may have been compromised. Most of the hackers’ activities took place on non-Facebook sites and platforms.
“They tried to create these people, build trust in the community, and use that as a way to trick people into clicking these links to expose their devices,” said Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of security policy.
The Facebook investigation found links between the hackers and two China-based tech companies, but no direct links to the Chinese government, which has been criticized for its harsh treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang. FireEye, however, said in a statement that “we believe this operation was carried out in support” of the Chinese government.
China has imprisoned more than a million people, including Uighurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups, in a vast network of concentration camps, according to US officials and human rights groups. People have been subjected to torture, sterilization and political indoctrination, in addition to forced labor, as part of an assimilation campaign in a region whose inhabitants are ethnically and culturally different from the Han Chinese majority.