The Computer Society of Kenya

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ruto-bomas-pixDAILY NATION By  Brian Wasuna

Thursday, February 16, 2023

A group of Israeli disinformation contractors hacked into email and social media accounts of senior election officials and President William Ruto’s close allies just days before the 2022 polls, an investigative report has revealed.

A consortium of journalists across the world has been investigating how Israeli national Tal Hanan led a team of disinformation experts in manipulating dozens of elections across the world.

The journalists posed as potential clients and held several meetings with the Israelis, some of which were secretly recorded.

Details of the investigation and findings of the international consortium of journalists have been revealed in a series of stories published by the UK-based media outlet, The Guardian.

While the media house did not name the officials, the Nation has established that digital campaign strategist Dennis Itumbi was one of two Ruto allies who had their social media accounts hacked.

Yesterday, Mr Itumbi said that his Telegram account was hacked and used to join several political groups. In some instances, his account was used to spread disinformation, Mr Itumbi added.

“I don’t use Telegram for any communication. I noticed increased activity on my Telegram account. The pattern showed that it was our competitors behind it. So we (Mr Itumbi and the other unnamed UDA campaign strategist) formed a few political groups and used them to mislead the hackers. For example, we would post that UDA will not hire agents for the elections,” Mr Itumbi said.

Mr Itumbi insisted that UDA did not hire any foreigners to spread disinformation during the election period. He said that the only foreign technology experts that the party interacted with were the two Indian nationals – Zulfiqar Ahmad Khan and Zaid Sami Kidwai – who went missing weeks to the General Election, alongside their driver Nicodemus Mwania.

Gmail account

In one of the secretly recorded meetings with Mr Hanan’s team, the Israeli national hacked into a Gmail account owned by a personal assistant to an unnamed senior Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) official. The report does not indicate whether there were further successful attempts to infiltrate either election officials or systems that were used during the polls.

When the Supreme Court heard petitions challenging President Ruto’s win, his main opponent Raila Odinga claimed that there was a lot of systems infiltration by foreigners to manipulate the results of the election. Mr Odinga’s claims were, however, focused on Venezuelans working for IEBC contractor Smartmatic.

The IEBC denied the claims, holding that its systems were “military grade” and that the elections were free and fair. The Supreme Court dismissed the petitions challenging President Ruto’s win, and termed Mr Odinga’s hacking allegations “hot air”.

Mr Hanan leads a group that identifies itself as Team Jorge, and also owns a firm registered as Demoman International, whose business has been promoted on websites operated by the Israeli government.

During a meeting with the journalists posing as potential clients, the Israeli techies showcased how good they are at spreading disinformation.

They hacked into Telegram accounts owned by two top officials in President Ruto’s campaign team. Once in, Team Jorge sent a message from one of the strategists to the other. The message, a greeting, was then deleted. 

A second demonstration was done with the same officials, this time the number 11 being sent from one to the other. This time, Mr Hanan and his team failed to properly delete the message. One of the journalists was able to track down the strategist that received the message and confirmed that it was still in the messaging app.

Israeli media outlet Haaretz reports Hanan went on to present another discovery he had made in the hacked account of the campaign adviser. He showed a link, username and password for the internal website of UDA. This was set up to follow the results.

A few minutes later, according to Haaretz, Hanan tried to impress them by showing the hacked Telegram account of Davis Chirchir – Ruto’s chief of staff in the election campaign and now energy Cabinet Secretary.

Seeds of division

Team Jorge uses such kind of hacking to sow seeds of division in groups, such as rival campaign teams. 

“One of the biggest things is to put sticks between the right people… And I can write to him what I think about his wife, or what I think about his last speech, or I can tell him that I promised him to be my next chief of staff, OK?” Mr Hanan said in the meeting.

The Israeli group boasted of interfering with 33 presidential elections through disinformation. It claimed that it had its way in 27 of the elections. 

The group also works for corporate clients, The Guardian report states.

Team Jorge told the journalists that it had been hired by a party in an ongoing election in Africa, but did not disclose which country. Only Kenya, Somalia and Angola held elections to select their next presidents and other elective seats last year. There were, however, 11 other nations that held elections to fill other elective positions.

In the meeting with undercover journalists, Mr Hanan gave the indication that in politics, it mostly meddles with presidential-level elections.

Mr Hanan and his team had developed software that could spread fake news in record time. Their Advanced Impact Media Solutions software can create thousands of fake social media profiles, which then spread disinformation. The false identities created are detailed, with pictures and personal histories that seem very realistic.

Team Jorge did not reveal why it chose to use an account owned by the IEBC official’s personal assistant, or whether it had been specifically hired to manipulate campaigns and the elections.

While there is no indication of whether Team Jorge was contracted by any of the four Presidential candidates, the Israeli outfit has a distant association with two of the coalition parties.

Defunct disinformation group Cambridge Analytica had expressed interest in working with Team Jorge for Jubilee Party in the 2017 General Election. But it turned down Team Jorge’s proposal for payment of between $400,000 (Sh50.2 million) and $600,000 (Sh75.3 million), arguing that Jubilee Party found the quote to be exorbitant.

President William Ruto and several of his UDA officials were members of the Jubilee Party at the time. Former President Uhuru Kenyatta, who shifted alliances to work with Mr Odinga in 2022, was at the time the Jubilee Party leader.

Azimio’s chief agent in the 2022 polls Saitabao Ole Kanchory denied that his team used any dirty tricks in the elections. He threw the hacking ball back to Kenya Kwanza.

“If we had such sophisticated tricks we would have won the election,” Mr Kanchory said.

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