Google has flagged a new concern about spyware hacking people’s smartphones in a new report, after tracking commercial spyware vendors for years.
Google’s threat analysis group (TAG) revealed the discovery on Thursday in a report as part of its efforts to “monitor and disrupt this thriving industry.”
Google’s report revealed that an Italian company’s hacking tools were used to spy on Apple and Android smartphones in Italy and Kazakhstan.
The spyware in question comes from Milan-based RCS Lab, whose website says its customers are European law enforcement agencies. This firm developed tools to spy on private messages and contacts of the targeted devices.
“Seven of the nine zero-day vulnerabilities our Threat Analysis Group discovered in 2021 fall into this category: developed by commercial providers and sold to and used by government-backed actors,” said Google. “TAG is actively tracking more than 30 vendors with varying levels of sophistication and public exposure selling exploits or surveillance capabilities to government-backed actors.”
“Our findings underscore the extent to which commercial surveillance vendors have proliferated capabilities historically only used by governments with the technical expertise to develop and operationalize exploits,” said Google.
“This makes the Internet less safe and threatens the trust on which users depend.”
“Today, alongside Google’s Project Zero, we are detailing capabilities we attribute to RCS Labs, an Italian vendor that uses a combination of tactics, including atypical drive-by downloads as initial infection vectors, to target mobile users on both iOS and Android,” it said. “We have identified victims located in Italy and Kazakhstan.
The governments of Italy and Kazakhstan did not immediately respond to requests for comment from Reuters.
An Apple spokesperson said the company had revoked all known accounts and certificates associated with this hacking campaign.
RCS Lab said its products and services comply with European rules and help law enforcement agencies investigate crimes.
“RCS Lab personnel are not exposed, nor participate in any activities conducted by the relevant customers,” it told Reuters in an email, adding it condemned any abuse of its products.
Google said it had taken steps to protect users of its Android operating system and alerted them about the spyware.
The spyware industry has under an intense global spotlight in recent years due to the Israeli surveillance firm NSO Group furore, after its Pegasus spyware was found to have been used by multiple governments to spy on journalists, activists, and dissidents.
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