Alphabet Inc.’s Google in a report said that a hacking tool developed in Italy was used to spy on Apple Inc. and Android handsets in Kazakhstan and the European country.
Additionally, the report highlighted that RCS Lab, a Milan-based company whose website lists European law enforcement agencies as clients, created tools to spy on private messages and contacts of the targeted devices.
Google said: “These vendors are enabling the proliferation of dangerous hacking tools and arming governments that would not be able to develop these capabilities in-house.”
This comes at a time when American and European regulators consider possible updates to the laws governing the sale and import of spyware.
Meanwhile, RCS Lab stated that its goods and services are compliant with European regulations and support criminal investigations by law enforcement. Furthermore, it told Reuters that “RCS Lab personnel are not exposed, nor participate in any activities conducted by the relevant customers”, and mentioned that any misuse of its products was condemned.
Google said that it had taken precautions to safeguard Android users and had informed them about the spyware.
It should be noted that Google researchers found RCS Lab had previously collaborated with the controversial, defunct Italian spy firm Hacking Team, which had similarly created surveillance software for foreign governments to tap into phones and computers.
The Hacking Team went bust after it became a victim of a major hack in 2015 that led to a disclosure of numerous internal documents.
As more businesses create intercepting tools for law enforcement agencies, the global market for spyware for governments has expanded. They are accused of supporting governments that, in some situations, employ these instruments to repress civil and human rights by anti-surveillance campaigners.
Regarding the latest findings, Google said: “These vendors are enabling the proliferation of dangerous hacking tools and arming governments that would not be able to develop these capabilities in-house.”
In some cases, Google said it believed hackers using RCS spyware worked with the target’s internet service provider, which suggests they had ties to government-backed actors, said Billy Leonard, a senior researcher at Google.
However, the increase in the use of such tools has been noticed by security researchers also. According to Avast, a global pioneer in digital security and privacy technologies, between March and June 2020, compared to January and February 2020, the usage of spy and stalkerware had increased by 51%.
Later in 2021, Kaspersky, popular Russian cybersecurity company, stated that a mass spyware campaign has targeted thousands of ICS (industrial control systems) computers around the world.
It was said that over 35,000 devices in 195 countries were the target of a new piece of malware discovered by Kaspersky specialists between January 20 and November 10 last year.
The advanced spying capabilities of this new malware, dubbed ‘PseudoManuscrypt’ because of its resemblance to the Manuscrypt malware used by the advanced persistent threat (APT) group Lazarus, have been observed targeting both government institutions and ICS in a variety of industries.
But the spyware industry came under the spotlight when reports related to NSO’s Pegasus spyware revealed alarming details. It was claimed that this tool was used by multiple governments to spy on journalists, activists, and dissidents.