Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Joined by 15 T-Rex dinosaurs, more than 200 people demonstrated in January of 2017 against the appointment of former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson for secretary of state, urging senators to #RejectRex. (Photo: Eman Mohammed/350.org)

'Exceptionally Troubling': Researchers Show Hack-for-Hire Operation Targeted Groups Fighting for Climate Action and Net Neutrality

"If the investigation demonstrates that Exxon is behind these attacks, it only shows how far the fossil fuel industry will go to silence critics."

Julia Conley

The Canadian digital watchdog group Citizen Lab reported Tuesday that a hack-for-hire group targeted thousands of organizations around the world, including climate advocacy groups involved in the #ExxonKnew campaign.

Groups that have asserted ExxonMobil knew about and hid data linking fossil fuel extraction to the climate crisis for years were among those that faced phishing attempts by a group dubbed "Dark Basin" by Citizen Lab. According to the research, numerous progressive groups—including Public Citizen, Greenpeace, 350.org, and Oil Change International—were among those targeted.

After an extensive multi-year investigation, Citizen Lab reported that it has linked Dark Basin "with high confidence" to BellTroX InfoTech Services, a technology company based in India which has publicly stated its hacking capabilities. 

"Many of Dark Basin's targets have a strong but unconfirmed sense that the targeting is linked to a dispute or conflict with a particular party whom they know. However, absent a systematic investigation, it is difficult for most individuals to determine with certainty who undertakes these phishing campaigns and/or who may be contracting for such services."
—Citizen Lab

In 2017 when Citizen Lab began its investigation, the group believed Dark Basin could be state-sponsored, but soon determined it was likely a hack-for-hire operation. Its targets—which also included journalists, elected officials, and digital rights groups that have lobbied for net neutrality—"were often on only one side of a contested legal proceeding, advocacy issue, or business deal."

The watchdog has not been able to definitively link Dark Basin's phishing efforts to particular entities which would have an interest in threatening the #ExxonKnew campaign and net neutrality advocates.

"That said, the extensive targeting of American nonprofits exercising their First Amendment rights is exceptionally troubling," wrote Citizen Lab in its report.

A global hack-for-hire scheme, Citizen Lab wrote, "is a serious problem for all sectors of society, from politics, advocacy, and government to global commerce," particularly because the targets have little recourse without a robust investigation by law enforcement.

"Many of Dark Basin's targets have a strong but unconfirmed sense that the targeting is linked to a dispute or conflict with a particular party whom they know," the report reads. "However, absent a systematic investigation, it is difficult for most individuals to determine with certainty who undertakes these phishing campaigns and/or who may be contracting for such services, especially given that Dark Basin's employees or executives are unlikely to be within the jurisdiction of their local law enforcement."

350.org responded to the report, noting that Citizen Lab's ongoing investigation could eventually uncover the fossil fuel industry's involvement. While acknowledging the evidence does not exist to directly implicate Exxon or any specific corporate actor behind the effort, the group said it would be deeply troubled to find out the company would behave in such a manner.

"If the investigation demonstrates that Exxon is behind these attacks, it only shows how far the fossil fuel industry will go to silence critics and avoid accountability for fueling climate change," said 350.org.

Net neutrality advocates are accustomed to seeing "an uptick in breach attempts whenever we're engaged in heated and high-profile public policy debates," Tim Karr of Free Press told CBC Tuesday.  Free Press was targeted by Dark Basin in 2017 as President Donald Trump's FCC was working to repeal net neutrality rules.

"When corporations and politicians can hire digital mercenaries to target civil society advocates, it undermines our democratic process," Evan Greer, deputy director of digital rights group Fight for the Future, told CBC. 


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

'Political Malpractice': House Democrats' Bill Wouldn't Add Dental to Medicare Until 2028

"I don't want to see it drawn out to as far as the House has proposed," Sen. Bernie Sanders said during a recent press call.

Jake Johnson ·


'How Many More Deaths Must It Take?' Barbados Leader Rips Rich Nations in Fierce UN Speech

"How many more variants of Covid-19 must arrive, how many more, before a worldwide plan for vaccinations will be implemented?"

Jake Johnson ·


To Avert Debt Ceiling Calamity, Democrats Urged to Finally Kill the Filibuster

"The solution is to blow up the filibuster at least for debt limit votes, just as Mitch blew it up to pack the Supreme Court for his big donors."

Jake Johnson ·


Biden Decries 'Outrageous' Treatment of Haitians at Border—But Keeps Deporting Them

"I'm glad to see President Biden speak out about the mistreatment of Haitian asylum-seekers. But his administration's use of Title 42 to deny them the right to make an asylum claim is a much bigger issue."

Jessica Corbett ·


Global Peace Activists Warn of Dangers of US-Led Anti-China Pacts

"No to military alliances and preparation for catastrophic wars," anti-war campaigners from over a dozen nations write in a letter decrying the new AUKUS agreement. "Yes to peace, disarmament, justice, and the climate."

Brett Wilkins ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo