“We Erase Your Past” Declares This Company

Credits: Benjamin Dada/ Unsplash
  • Cache of 50,000 files lays bare deceptive methods used by Eliminalia to clear up its clients’ cyber profiles.
  • Eliminalia also appears to have exploited US legislation intended to protect intellectual property, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). 
  • Earlier this year, Eliminalia seemed to have an identity shift, changing its name to iData Protection in official registers.

“We erase your past” declares the company’s tagline. Eliminalia, which has offices in several cities including Barcelona and Kyiv, is part of a growing industry that will clean up your online profile.

Company erasing the past

Officially the company performs “a deep search across the internet for all information – whether it be an article, a blog, social media posts or even a mistaken identity”. It then endeavours, on behalf of its clients, to get any negative information removed.

The Guardian, however, found that over several years, the company deployed unethical or deceptive methods to scrub unwanted and damaging content from the internet.

These included impersonating third parties, such as media organizations, and filing fake copyright complaints to search engines such as Google to get information taken down. 

In other cases, it would bury negative articles under a deluge of fluffy stories about dogs, cars and football.

Company’s working

Eliminalia’s services are revealed in a cache of 50,000 internal files that show how the company worked for a host of clients around the world. 

Many were individuals simply wanting an embarrassing or traumatic incident in their past to cease haunting them online.

But the firm’s clients also included those accused or convicted of criminal offences, including drug smugglers, fraudsters, petty criminals and at least one sex offender.

EU’s right to be forgotten

Eliminalia’s website says it primarily gets results using the EU’s “right to be forgotten”, which can be used legitimately by criminals to request the removal of references to their convictions when it can reasonably be claimed that they have moved on from their crime.

The files provide a fascinating insight into reputation management firms willing to draw on dubious means to clean up a client’s reputation online.

It is unclear whether Eliminalia’s clients knew of the methods it used.

Global investigation into disinformation

The files were shared with the Guardian by Forbidden Stories, a French nonprofit whose mission is to pursue the work of assassinated, threatened or jailed reporters. It has coordinated a global investigation into disinformation.

When the company was founded

Founded in 2013 by 30-year-old Diego “Didac” Sanchez, Eliminalia built a catalogue of clients across 50 countries. 

Between 2015 and 2021 it worked for more than 1,500 individuals and businesses, according to the leaked files, which include emails, contracts, client details, fake legal letters and copies of negative articles about the firm’s clients.

Clients includea Swiss bank accused of infringing money-laundering regulation, a slum landlord convicted in the UK of dozens of offences relating to shockingly derelict properties, a Turkish biotech tycoon charged with hiring a hitman to murder a business associate and a Venezuelan businessman implicated in tax evasion linked to works of art.

Companies different clients

Clients appear to have been charged up to €100,000, although most paid a few thousand dollars for a one-off service.

Eliminalia did not respond in detail to repeated requests for comment. Its lawyers said: “The orientation and content of the vast majority of the questions demonstrate a partial and dishonourable approach.”

Several of Eliminalia’s clients did, however, answer questions about the company’s work.

Erasing convict’s past

One was Hernán Gabriel Westmann, who was accused by Argentinian authorities in 2017 of having laundered money for the Sinaloa drug cartel. The charges were dismissed by judges two years later, citing insufficient evidence.

Westmann told the Washington Post, one of the consortium’s partners, that the charges against him had been brought by the government of Mauricio Macri as retaliation for having done business with Macri’s leftwing predecessor, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

He said he had been able to persuade Argentinian media to remove articles about him but turned to Eliminalia for help with foreign press reports that he considered to be inaccurate.

Westmann now appears in articles pontificating about the rules of American football, the application of philosophy to daily life, and the “natural arrogance” of chihuahuas – published on sites that appear to be linked to Eliminalia’s parent company.

Westmann said that he did not know how Eliminalia removed articles, and that he was unaware of any spam.

Spam articles

Qurium, a Swedish nonprofit, has identified 600 sites that host similar articles, often about dogs, cars and sport, which feature prominently the names of people who appear in the leaked files as Eliminalia clients.

The stories are published among genuine news reports to enhance their credibility. These sites then flood content on to Google, often using carefully formulated headlines that potentially trick the search engine’s algorithm into placing the spam articles high up the results of any search. The spam articles push the real but offending content down the ranking index, making it harder to find.

In one example analysed by the Guardian, a search for a slum landlord listed as one of Eliminalia’s clients returned dozens of half-written blog posts and threadbare social media profiles that seemed to have pushed reports of criminal convictions down to the fifth page of results, where few people are likely to find them.

False copyright claims

Eliminalia also appears to have exploited US legislation intended to protect intellectual property, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). 

Under DMCA provisions, search engines have to provide a means by which companies and individuals can get stolen content taken down.

Firms such as Google require copyright complainants to affirm on penalty of perjury that they are telling the truth. 

However, such an affirmation requires applicants only to tick a box, with no obligation to provide supporting evidence.

Eliminalia seems to have filed deceptive DMCA complaints to search engines, including Google, to get articles removed from the internet and in some cases ticked the perjury box.

Some of these fake notices look like they have been sent by legitimate media companies and make false copyright claims over an article they wanted taken down.

In one instance, an Eliminalia employee appears to have falsely claimed to be a representative of the company that owns the Italian newspaper La Repubblica when filing a false copyright complaint to Google demanding it remove a member of the public’s blogpost, which had supposedly plagiarised an article.

The newspaper’s owner told the Guardian it did not file the copyright complaint or have an employee that matched the name of the complainant.

The complaint appears to have been part of Eliminalia’s work on behalf of the Italian software company Area SpA. Area, which was reported in 2011 to have sold surveillance technology to the regime of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, confirmed to the Guardian that it had hired Eliminalia.

In 2014 Area agreed to pay a $100,000 civil penalty to the US Department of Commerce to settle charges that it had exported US-made components to Syria, in violation of longstanding sanctions against the dictatorship.

Area maintains that the system was provided in full compliance with all the rules and regulations in force at the time that it was hired to work in Syria.

“One of the main reasons behind our intention to remove the contents is its partial untruthfulness and lack of accuracy,” the firm said.

Area added that it believed Eliminalia had to comply with all regulation and act professionally and ethically.

‘You can rebuild your future’

For a different client, an Eliminalia employee sought to deceive Google into removing an article by the Business Times in Singapore on money-laundering by Swiss banks by impersonating the news agency Bloomberg and falsely claiming that the Business Times had stolen their work. “The content is our own work. It has been copied without our authorisation,” wrote the false claimant in an email to Google.

A spokesperson for Google said: “We actively fight fraudulent takedown attempts by using a combination of automated and human review to detect signals of abuse. 

We provide extensive transparency about these removals to hold requesters accountable, and sites can file counter notifications for us to re-review if they believe content has been removed from our results in error.”

In some cases, Eliminalia employees seem to have attempted to pass themselves off as representatives of unrelated third parties in an attempt to get a publisher or website-hosting company to take material down.

In one example, a hosting company was sent what appeared to be legal threats by “Raúl Soto” of the “Brussels EU Commission”, demanding that it delete blogposts by a Kenyan opposition group. Initially the letters had looked genuine but faltering English gave them away. 

The European Commission told reporters that it had asked its cybersecurity department to remove the domain used to send the threats on the grounds of impersonation.

Earlier this year, Eliminalia – which promises it can eliminate the past so “you can rebuild your future” – seemed to have an identity shift, changing its name to iData Protection in official registers. Today’s revelations, which are published in media outlets around the world, may prove not so easy to erase.

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Source: The Guardian