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Facebook fakers get better at covering tracks, security experts say

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People are silhouetted as they pose with mobile devices in front of a screen projected with a Facebook logo. Reuters

WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – Creators of fake accounts and news pages on Facebook (FB.O) are learning from their past mistakes and making themselves harder to track and identify, posing new challenges in preventing the platform from being used for political misinformation, cyber security experts say.

This was apparent as Facebook tried to determine who created pages it said were aimed at sowing dissension among US voters ahead of congressional elections in November. The company said it had removed 32 fake pages and accounts from Facebook and Instagram involved in what it called “coordinated inauthentic behavior.”

While the United States improves its efforts to monitor and root out such intrusions, the intruders keep getting better at it, said cyber security experts interviewed over the past two days.

Ben Nimmo, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Digital Forensic Research Lab, said he had noticed the latest pages used less original language, rather cribbing from copy already on the internet.

“Linguistic mistakes would give them away before, between 2014 and 2017,” Mr Nimmo told Reuters. “In some of these newer cases it seems they’ve caught on to that by writing less (original material) when posting things. With their longer posts sometimes it’s just pirated, copy and pasted from some American website. That makes them less suspicious.”

Facebook’s prior announcement on the topic of fake accounts, in April, directly connected a Russian group known as the Internet Research Agency to a myriad of posts, events and propaganda that were placed on Facebook leading up to the 2016 US presidential election.

This time, Facebook did not identify the source of the misinformation.

“It’s clear that whoever set up these accounts went to much greater lengths to obscure their true identities than the Russian-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) has in the past,” the company said in a blog post here last Tuesday announcing the removal of the pages. “Our technical forensics are insufficient to provide high confidence attribution at this time.”

Facebook said it had shared evidence connected to the latest flagged posts with several private sector partners, including the Digital Forensic Research Lab, an organization founded by the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank.

Facebook also said the use of virtual private networks, internet phone services, and domestic currency to pay for advertisements helped obfuscate the source of the accounts and pages. The perpetrators also used a third party, which Facebook declined to name, to post content.

Facebook declined to comment further, referring back to its blog post.

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