Facebook has accused Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs of operating a network that attempted to hack and discredit civil society figures in the country.
In their April quarterly Adversarial Threat Report, Facebook said they had removed a ‘hybrid network’ operated by the ministry that ‘combined cyber espionage with Coordinated Inauthentic Behaviour’
They said the government hacked into and spoofed websites, primarily in Azerbaijan with some also in Armenia, in order to gain the usernames and passwords of targetted users.
Facebook said their findings had corroborated a report by OC Media that the Facebook account of women’s rights activist Narmin Shahmarzadeh was hacked, purportedly by the government, a day after the 2021 International Women's Day march in Baku.
The report also said that fake and compromised pages and accounts were used to post ‘critical or compromising commentary about the government opposition, activists, journalists, and other members of civil society in Azerbaijan’.
The Azerbaijani government has frequently been accused of hacking into critics’ devices and accounts, including to obtain blackmail material.
In July 2021, a consortium of journalistic outlets including the OCCRP, The Guardian, and The Washington Post, revealed that a number of countries had used the Israeli Pegasus spyware to hack into the phones of opponents. The investigation found that dozens of journalists, lawyers, political activists, and human rights activists' phones had been hacked by the Azerbaijani government.
Imran Aliyev, a cyber security expert and the founder of the Majlis.info portal, told OC Media that Facebook and other social networks were used ‘very effectively’ by the Azerbaijani government to crack down on dissent.
He said that when such methods were insufficient, the government resorted to ‘traditional methods, such as illegal surveillance, harassment, arrest, etc.’
These would continue to work in authoritarian regimes such as in Azerbaijan, he said, ‘no matter how much Facebook or other major companies tighten security measures.’
OC Media has reached out to the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Azerbaijan for comment.