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Google calls out spyware firms and advocates for tighter regulation

FILE PHOTO: The logo of Google LLC is seen at the Google Store Chelsea in New York City

By Zeba Siddiqui

(Reuters) -Internet giant Google on Tuesday called out a series of surveillance software companies that it said were enabling the use of dangerous hacking tools, and urged the United States and its allies to do more to rein in the spyware industry.

Spyware firms often say their products are meant for the use of governments for national security. However, the technology has been repeatedly found to have been used to hack into the phones of civil society, political opposition and journalists in the last decade. The industry has faced increasing scrutiny since the Israeli firm NSO's Pegasus spyware was found on the phones of various people globally, including human rights defenders.

In a report on Tuesday, Google researchers said that while NSO is better known, there are dozens of smaller firms helping the proliferation of spy technology for malicious uses.

The findings by Alphabet Inc's Google are significant because the company has some of the best visibility into hacking campaigns globally, given the vast breadth of its online offerings.

"Demand from government customers remains strong and our findings underscore the extent to which commercial spyware vendors have proliferated hacking and spyware capabilities that weaken the safety of the Internet for all," researchers from Google's TAG threat-hunting team said in the report.

"The private sector is now responsible for a significant portion of the most sophisticated tools we detect."

The United States and several of its allies committed last year to work toward curbing the surveillance software industry, after at least 50 U.S. government employees in 10 countries were found to have been targeted by spyware.

The Google researchers named a roster of firms that offer a range of services to break into phones, and have been evolving to bypass the latest security measures by Apple and Google for their phone operating systems iOS and Android.

They include the Italian firms Cy4Gate and RCS Labs, Greek company Intellexa, and the lesser-known Italian company Negg Group and Spain's Variston.

Negg Group’s website says the company is focused on cybersecurity, but Google said its software was found to have been used to spy on people in Italy, Malaysia, and Kazakhstan.

Variston made software that infected user’s devices via the browsers Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox or iOS apps, Google said, adding that another company, Protected AE -- also known as Protect Electronic Systems -- used a similar targeting technique.

The five companies either did not respond to requests for comment, or were not reachable.

The Google report comes a day after the United States announced a new visa restriction policy for those it said were misusing commercial spyware, allowing the placing of restrictions on individuals believed to have been involved in the abuse of commercial spyware, as well as for those who facilitate such actions and benefit from it.

"Limiting spyware vendors' ability to operate in the U.S. helps to change the incentive structure which has allowed their continued growth," Google said in a statement.

(Additional reeporting by Christopher Bing in Washington; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

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