Chinese hackers used fake Facebook profiles and spoof websites to target Uyghur activists with spy malware, the social media company announced on Wednesday.
Using various cyber espionage tactics, Facebook said, members of Earth Empusa or Evil Eye sought out Muslim Uyghur activists, journalists and dissidents from China's Xinjiang region. But the sophisticated operation also stretched to individuals living in Turkey, Kazakhstan, Syria, Australia, Canada and the U.S., according to an investigation by the company.
"This activity had the hallmarks of a well-resourced and persistent operation, while obfuscating who's behind it," Facebook cybersecurity investigators said in a statement.
The objective of the phishing scam was to lure Uyghur audiences into clicking on false content links — either from a computer or smartphone — to infect the device with malware. In addition to posing as journalists and Uyghur activists, the hackers also developed phony apps and set up imposter websites with nearly identical url's to real news sites that are popular with Uyghurs.
"On our platform, this cyber espionage campaign manifested primarily in sending links to malicious websites rather than direct sharing of the malware itself," the company said.
Facebook said in total, fewer than 500 people were affected.
As a result, officials said they took down the group's accounts — about 100 — and notified the people believed to have been targeted by the hackers. They also shared the findings with industry peers.
China is believed to have detained hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs in mass detention centers that have been called "no rights" zones by a United Nations report. Chinese officials say the camps and Uyghur arrests are part of their fight against terrorism.
A 2019 Buzzfeed investigation found that Chinese-state media had paid Facebook to run three ads "seemingly designed to cast doubt on human rights violations occurring under the government's mass incarceration of Muslim minorities" and claiming that the detention centers did not interfere with religious beliefs and practices. The intended audiences for the ads were in the U.S. and other countries.
Facebook's latest announcement comes just days after the U.S. joined the EU and other allies in imposing a series of sanctions against China for its treatment of the group.