The setup is similar to the plot of a classic noir film—except in the world of cyber espionage, the femme fatale turns out to be a male operative working for Hamas.
On January 11, the Israel Defense Forces uncovered a plot in which members of Hamas, a Palestinian Islamic fundamentalist organization, posed as attractive women on Facebook in order to trick soldiers into revealing sensitive military information. The hackers set up fake social media profiles, mostly on Facebook, using stolen photos of young, attractive girls from Israel and Europe to lure Israeli soldiers into signing up for a messaging app that would be used as a Trojan horse — a malicious computer program that is used to hack into a computer by misleading users about its true intent.
“This girl sent me this message one day on Facebook. We spoke constantly, she told me that she had served in the Israeli prison service. Our relationship got stronger with time,” said a soldier whose anonymous testimony was posted on the Israeli army’s Facebook page. “I got to trust her more, to know her gradually. She said, let’s download this app together so that we can speak. It didn’t work… then suddenly I realized it wasn’t a girl, it was Hamas.”
Espionage baited with sex has been documented since at least Biblical times, when Delilah betrayed Samson by revealing his weakness (his hair) to the Philistines in exchange for 1,100 pieces of silver, as described in the book of Judges. “Honey traps” — as they’re often referred to in the spy world — are ploys that use a woman’s seductive powers to gain access to top secret information. What distinguishes the honey trap set by members of Hamas from the usual scenario is the fact that no actual women were involved. It’s honey trap meets catfishing: From Hamas With Love.
Of course, this wasn’t the first time that fake Facebook profiles had been employed to gain access to sensitive military information. In fact, the Taliban may have pioneered Hamas’ scam. According to a report by the Australian government in 2012, Taliban operatives posed as attractive women on Facebook to befriend deployed soldiers and track their whereabouts, thanks to Facebook’s geotagging features. “Most did not recognize that people using fake profiles, perhaps masquerading as school friends, could capture information and movements,” the report states. “Few consider the possibilities of data mining and how patterns of behavior can be identified over time.”
Other strategies included in the report were “pretending to be high school friends of either gender, or creating spoofed Facebook pages which soldiers are induced to like.”
Though companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTubehave taken recent steps to suspend accounts that promote terrorism, as part of a continuing effort to keep people from using social networks for extremist causes, a 2015 report from the Brookings Institute estimated that at the time of the report ISIS controlled as many as 90,000 Twitter accounts which it used to spread propaganda and radicalize Westerners.
An Israeli official speaking to the recent incident involving Hamas said that, “most of the people affected were conscripts; a few were career soldiers. And most were combat soldiers, while a few were noncombat staff soldiers.”
With that in mind, it becomes obvious why young conscripted soldiers with exorbitant bouts of downtime and a limited access to porn would make for the perfect target. Which is why the Israeli army has launched a social media campaign to warn Israelis about Hamas operatives assuming the online identities of attractive young girls in order to converse with, and steal intelligence from, soldiers on the ground.