Spanish company that uses dubious methods to ‘erase your past’ from the internet | Spain

“We’re erasing your past,” says 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.

Officially, the company conducts a “deep search of all information on the Internet, whether it’s an article, a blog, a social media post, or even a mistaken identity.” It then tries to remove any negative information on behalf of its customers.

The Guardian, however, found that over the years the company has used unethical or deceptive methods to scrub unwanted and harmful content from the internet.

These included impersonating third parties, such as the media, and submitting false copyright claims to search engines such as Google to extract information. In other cases, it will bury negative articles under a deluge of fluffy stories about dogs, cars and football.

Eliminalia’s services are identified in a cache of 50,000 internal files that show how the company has worked for many clients around the world. Many were individuals who simply wanted an embarrassing or traumatic incident from their past to stop stalking them online.

But the firm’s clients also include those charged with or convicted of criminal offenses, including drug traffickers, fraudsters, petty criminals and at least one sex offender.

Eliminalia’s website says it mainly gets results by using the EU’s “right to be forgotten”, which can be legally used by criminals to ask for references to their convictions to be removed when they can reasonably be said to have left theirs. from crime.

The files provide a fascinating insight into reputation management companies willing to resort to dubious means to clean up a customer’s reputation online.

It is unclear whether Eliminalia’s customers knew about the methods he was using.

The files were given to the Guardian by Forbidden Stories, a French non-profit organization whose mission is to pursue the work of journalists who have been killed, threatened or imprisoned. It coordinated a global investigation into disinformation.

A quick guide

About this investigative series


The Guardian and Observer have teamed up with an international consortium of journalists to investigate global disinformation. Our project, Disinfo black ops, reveals how disinformation is deliberately spread by powerful states and private operatives who sell their secret services to political campaigns, companies and wealthy individuals. It also reveals how inconvenient truths can be erased from the internet by those rich enough to pay. The investigation is part of Story killers, in collaboration with Forbidden Stories, a French non-profit organization whose mission is to pursue the work of journalists who have been killed, threatened or imprisoned.

The eight-month investigation was inspired by the work of 55-year-old journalist Gauri Lankesh, who was murdered outside her home in Bengaluru in 2017. Hours before his murder, Lankesh was finishing an article called In. the age of fake news, which examined how so-called lie factories spread misinformation online in India. In the last line of the article, published after his death, Lankesh wrote: “I want to salute all those who expose fake news. I wish there were more of them.”

The Story killers consortium includes more than 100 journalists from 30 media outlets, including Haaretz, Le Monde, Radio France, Der Spiegel, Paper Trail Media, Die Zeit, TheMarker and OCCRP. Read more about this project.

Investigative journalism like this is vital to our democracy. Please consider supporting it today.

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Founded in 2013 by 30-year-old Diego “Didac” Sanchez, Eliminalia has built a catalog of clients in 50 countries. Between 2015 and 2021, it worked for more than 1,500 individuals and businesses, according to the leaked files, which include emails. letters, contracts, client details, fake legal letters and copies of negative articles about the firm’s clients.

Clients include a Swiss bank accused of breaching money-laundering rules, a cottage landlord convicted of dozens of crimes in the UK linked to shockingly derelict properties, a Turkish biotech tycoon accused of hiring a hitman for a business partner to kill, and a Venezuelan businessman involved in tax fraud. avoidance of works of art.

Customers have apparently been charged up to €100,000, although most paid several thousand dollars for a one-off service.

Eliminalia did not respond to repeated requests for comment. His lawyers said: “The direction and content of the vast majority of questions shows a partial and dishonorable approach.”

Several Eliminalia customers did respond to questions about the company’s performance, however.

One was Ernan Gabriel Westman, who was accused by Argentine authorities of laundering money for the Sinaloa drug cartel in 2017. The charges were dismissed by judges two years later, citing insufficient evidence.

Westman told a Consortium partner, the Washington Post, that the charges against him were brought by Mauricio Macri’s government in retaliation for doing business with Macri’s leftist predecessor, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

He said he was able to convince Argentine media outlets to remove articles about him, but turned to Eliminalia for help with foreign press reports he considered inaccurate.

Westman now appears in papal articles American football rules, the application of philosophy in everyday lifeand: the “natural arrogance” of chihuahuas. – posted on websites that appear to be affiliated with Eliminalia’s parent company.

Westman said he did not know how Eliminalia removed the articles and that he was not aware of any spam.

One Eliminalia customer now appears in dozens of articles, including one about Chihuahuas. Photo: Sanjeev Gupta/EPA

Curium, a Swedish non-profit organization, has found 600 locations which contain similar articles, often about dogs, cars and sports, highlighting the names of people who appear in the leaked files as clients of Eliminalia.

Stories are published in real news to increase their credibility. These sites then flood Google with content, often using carefully worded titles that potentially trick the search engine’s algorithm into placing spam articles on any search results. Spam articles push genuine but offensive content down the ranking index, making it harder to find.

In one example analyzed by the Guardian, a search for a cottage landlord listed among Eliminalia clients returned dozens of half-written blog posts and bleak social media profiles that appeared to relegate reports of criminal convictions to the fifth page of results, where. few people are likely to find them.

Eliminalia also appears to have exploited a US law designed to protect intellectual property, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Under the terms of the DMCA, search engines must provide a means by which companies and individuals can remove stolen content.

Companies like Google require copyright complainants to pay penalties for perjury that they are telling the truth. However, such approval only requires applicants to tick a box without any obligation to provide supporting evidence.

Eliminalia appears to have filed fraudulent DMCA complaints with search engines, including Google, to get the articles removed from the Internet and in some cases tick the perjury box.

Some of these fake notices appear to be sent by legitimate media companies and make false copyright claims about an article they wanted removed.

In one case, an employee of Eliminalia apparently falsely claimed to be a representative of the company that owns the Italian newspaper La Repubblica when he filed a false copyright complaint with Google demanding the removal of a member of a community blog that allegedly plagiarized the article. .

The newspaper’s owner told the Guardian it had not filed a copyright complaint or had an employee matching the name of the complainant.

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

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

Area maintains that the system was provided to work in Syria in accordance with all rules and regulations in effect at the time of employment.

“One of the main reasons we intend to remove content is its partial fakeness and lack of accuracy,” the company said.

Area added that it believes Eliminalia must comply with all regulations and act professionally and ethically.

“You Can Rebuild Your Future”

For another client, an Eliminalia employee tried to trick Google into removing a Singapore Business Times article about money laundering by Swiss banks by impersonating the Bloomberg news agency and falsely claiming that the Business Times had stolen their work. “The content is our own work. It was copied without our permission,” the fake claimant wrote in an email to Google.

The representative of Google said: “We actively combat fraudulent removal 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 submit counter-notices for us to review if they believe content has been mistakenly removed from our results.”

In some cases, Eliminalia employees appear to have attempted to pose as representatives of unrelated third parties in an attempt to get the publisher or web hosting company to remove the material.

In one example, a hosting company appeared to have been sent legal threats to “Raoul Soto” of the “EU Commission in Brussels” demanding the deletion of blog posts by a Kenyan opposition group. At first the letters looked real, but the wavering English gave them away. The European Commission told reporters it had asked its cyber security department to remove a domain used to send threats based on impersonation.

Earlier this year, Eliminalia, which promises it can erase the past so “you can rebuild your future,” appeared to undergo an identity change, changing its name to iData Protection in official registries. Today’s revelations, which are published in various media around the world, may turn out to be not so easy to erase.

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