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Google unearths new Israeli-made spyware apps

Human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor shows Associated Press journalists a screenshot of a spoof text message he received in Ajman, United Arab Emirates, on Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016.
AP Photo/Jon Gambrell
Apps could gain access to a phone's camera, calls, microphone and apps such as Whatsapp and Gmail

Global technology giant Google announced on Wednesday that it has discovered spyware for sale on its Google Play store capable of recording calls and accessing encrypted chat applications, and that it appears to have been developed by an Israeli company.

Earlier this year Google revealed it had blocked software made by another Israeli company, the NSO Group, that has reportedly been used to spy on activists and journalists in Mexico and the United Arab Emirates, and possibly a host of repressive regimes.

On Wednesday, analysts from Android, Google’s mobile operating system, wrote in a blog post that it had blocked twenty apps that used to infiltrate mobile devices using a spyware called Lipizzan, which had been uploaded to fewer than 100 devices in “a targeted fashion.”

The post said that Lipizzan’s code “contains references to a cyber arms company, Equus Technologies.”

According to information available online, Equus Technologies is an Israeli group based in Herzilya and was founded in 2014. It does not have a website. The technology website Motherboard reported that at least one employee at Equus previously worked at NSO.

The Lipizzan applications would look like “back up” or “cleaner” products that users typically download to manage apps and content.

Once downloaded, the spyware was capable of almost any function, including recording calls, taking photos and screenshots, microphone recording and location monitoring.

It was also capable of stealing data from widely used apps that would contain confidential information, such as Gmail, Whatsapp, Messenger, Telegram and Snapchat.

It was not mentioned if the apps had been discovered in a specific country or geographic location. A query to Google was not answered.

Equus’ Linkedin page describes the company as “specializing in the development of tailor made innovative solutions for law enforcement, intelligence agencies, and national security organizations.”

Sources told Motherboard that Equus has long been involved in selling malware, and has purchased details on software bugs. The website also said a source told them that Equus sells interception devices that can be carried in backpacks.

This week’s revelation by Google was not the first time an Israeli company has been fingered as being behind espionage apps.

A group of international detectives - brought to Mexico to investigate a mass killing - was targeted with surveillance technology sold by NSO, the New York Times reported in early July.

NSO sold the Mexican government sophisticated hacking and surveillance tools that can turn a person's mobile phone into an audio and video-recorder, the paper reported. 

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