A group of hackers in China who used Facebook to target Uighurs living abroad, including in Australia, with links to malware that would infect their devices and enable surveillance were blocked, the social media company, Facebook, said on Thursday.
It said the hackers, known as Earth Empusa or Evil Eye in the security industry, targeted activists, journalists and dissidents who were predominantly Uighurs.
Facebook said there were fewer than 500 targets, who were largely from the Xinjiang region but were primarily living abroad in countries including Turkey, Kazakhstan, the United States, Syria, Australia and Canada.
It said the majority of the hackers’ activity occurred away from Facebook and that they used the site to share links to malicious websites rather than directly sharing the malware on the platform.
“This activity had the hallmarks of a well-resourced and persistent operation, while obfuscating who’s behind it,” Facebook cybersecurity investigators said in a blog post.
Facebook said the hacking group used fake Facebook accounts to pose as fictitious journalists, students, human rights advocates or members of the Uighur community to build trust with their targets and trick them into clicking malicious links that would install spying software on their devices.
Facebook also found websites created by the group to mimic third-party Android app stores with Uighur-themed apps, like a prayer app and dictionary app, containing malware.
The company said its investigation found two Chinese companies, Beijing Best United Technology Co Ltd and Dalian 9Rush Technology had developed the Android tool deployed by the group.
Western governments are seeking to hold Beijing accountable for mass detentions of Muslim Uighurs in northwestern China, where the United States says China is committing genocide.
China denies all accusations of abuse and says its camps provide vocational training and are needed to fight extremism.
The United Nations estimates that up to 1 million people, mainly Uighurs, have been detained in the Xinjiang camps.