Meta Sues Israeli Surveillance Firm for Harvesting Data on 600,000 Users via Fake Accounts

Facebook's parent company claims Voyager Labs used tens of thousands of fake accounts and advanced tracking tools to secretly collect information on 600,000 Facebook and Instagram users

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Meta, Facebook's parent company.
Meta, Facebook's parent company.Credit: DADO RUVIC/Reuters

Facebook's parent company Meta is suing to ban Israeli surveillance company Voyager Labs from using Facebook and Instagram, alleging that the firm scraped the data of 600,000 users without their knowledge via tens of thousands of fake accounts, according to a report in The Guardian.

The lawsuit states that Facebook deleted 38,000 fake profiles set up by the firm, which has offices in the U.S., U.K., Israel, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates and which carries out research and development through a subsidiary in Israel.

The lawsuit alleges that Voyager Labs employed surveillance software that used fake accounts to gather data from Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn and Telegram in addition to Facebook and Instagram users. The data included posts, likes, friends, photos, comments and information from groups and pages.

Meta uncovered the surveillance activities in July 2022, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit is another step in Facebook's war on what it defines as a digital spying and surveillance industry, and sheds light on a market of unknown companies specializing in mining information from social networks. Voyager Labs is part of an industry purporting to predict crime according to past behavior and social media activity.

Since the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018, in which personal information on tens of millions of Facebook users was harvested for political propaganda purposes, including in the U.S. and the U.K., social networks have been limiting access to information and trying to make it more difficult to mine information about their users.

In practice, a game of cat and mouse exists between the social networks and the WEBINT (web intelligence) and SOCMINT (social media intelligence) companies that take advantage of exploits in the networks and offer mining and information extraction capabilities designed to bypass barriers set up by the networks.

This is how an industry of fake accounts was created, which make it possible to avoid increasing restrictions. When a fake account connects to a real user or a closed group, it can collect extensive information on a wide network of users, even if they have enabled their privacy settings and only share content with approved users.

"Voyager Labs offers information extraction without distinguishing between the type of customer, their needs or the nature of the targets subject to surveillance, which may lead to a violation of civil rights," said Meta, which is also currently suing Israeli offensive cyber company NSO for hacking its WhatsApp.

But unlike the offensive cyber field that is allegedly overseen by Israel and sold to state clients, the fields of OSINT, WEBINT and SOCMINT have so far not been considered controversial and remain unsupervised.

The Voyager Labs lawsuit is a challenge to an entire industry, in which Israel ranks among the leaders with at least eight comparable companies, some of which offer more advanced tools.

Voyager Labs did not respond to a request for comment from The Guardian, which reported on the lawsuit on Friday.

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