Greece’s phone tapping scandal is growing after a journalist revealed that the National Intelligence Service (EYP) was tracking 15,700 other devices.
This came in testimony to a parliamentary committee from EYP’s former chief Panagiotis Kontoleon, Reuters said. The news led him to step down after Mitsotakis said he wasn’t told that PASOK Socialist leader Nikos Androulakis’ phone calls were being monitored.
Androulakis is also a member of the European Parliament, and Mitsotakis said he wouldn’t have approved bugging his phone. The PM also forced out his General-Secretary, his nephew, Grigoris Dimitriadis, for allegedly keeping him out of the loop.
EYP didn’t identify who was being tracked or why, but the scandal that’s rocked the government ahead of 2023 elections showed how widespread surveillance in the European Union is with top bloc officials being among those whose phones are infiltrated.
Androulakis wasn’t aware EYP was reportedly listening to his conversations, including to those of party officials and former prime ministers. This was revealed, he said, after a European Parliament research lab identified an attempt to also place Predator spyware on his phone.
He said this was discovered in September 2021 only three months before taking over the sagging fortunes of the center-left Movement for Change (KINAL), a party that morphed into a renewed PASOK, which, for decades, battled New Democracy for dominance.
Under Androulakis, the party doubled its popularity, and its role in future elections, which will be held under new rules for the first time, could be significant and play a determining role.
New rules eliminate a fifty-seat bonus in Parliament for the winner, meaning that this will likely lead to a coalition or second election.
The New York Times said the phone tapping of Androulakis and reporter Thanasis Koukakis, who the paper said was investigating powerful business interests close to Mitsotakis, put the onus of spyware squarely on Greece.
“The charges of government spying detonated into a sprawling scandal that is now shaking the very top of the Greek government, raising fears of widespread surveillance throughout Europe, and potentially putting another crack in Europe’s united front against [Russia] for its war in Ukraine,” the report said.
The scandal erupted in August, when most Greeks are away at their villages or islands and interest in news declines. August is when people head to beaches and other places to escape, and tourists pour into the country.
However, the paper said: “Greece today is awash in talk of blackmail, Watergate and a secret police state that uses a pervasive, legal surveillance program…to start, extend or cut off wiretaps in this country of 10.5 million people,” where Predator has become a part of conversations.
There’s a new EYP chief, but the furor hasn’t died down, and Androulakis is refusing government offers of a briefing about why he was tapped. Kontoleon said that it was “in the national interest” and at the request of Ukrainian and Armenian intelligence, but the two nations have denied such requests.
The major opposition, SYRIZA, unseated by New Democracy in the July 2019 snap elections, likened the scandal to Watergate. Other reports said the scandal revived memories of the 1967 to 1974 right-wing military dictatorship that attempted to keep tabs on everyone.
The European Parliament could also look into the cases in Greece, as it has a committee probing the use of more sophisticated Pegasus spyware in the EU.
Greece’s Phone Tapping Game
The head of that panel, Sophia in ‘t Veld from the Netherlands, tweeted that investigations into spyware should now “involve a check of the phones of all politicians and top level officials…to get a full picture of the spying activity by governments.”
The Israeli firm NSO’s notorious Pegasus spyware is so prevalent that a European Parliament delegation said the company has contracts with twelve of the European Union’s twenty-seven member states. The Israeli firm didn’t identify the nations with contracts.
Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, specializing in surveillance techniques, said that Predator, made in North Macedonia but now part of a company headed by Tal Dilian, an ex-Israeli intelligence officer with headquarters in Athens, was sold to Greece.
The government denied the use of Predator and shifted toward other defenses as more information was revealed, with New Democracy spokesman Giannis Oikonomou ominously suggesting phone tap files of Androulakis may have been destroyed.
Development Minister and New Democracy Vice-President Adonis Georgiadis said it’s possible that Russian or Turkish hackers were actually accountable for the phone tapping. This would imply a different sort of conspiracy, one aimed at toppling the government or instigating political instability.
“If I were Mr. Putin, I would be very happy if the governments that were so opposed to Russia would fall,” Georgiadis is reported to have said. This referred to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fury over EU sanctions for the invasion of Ukraine.
Mitsotakis, said The Times had also mentioned that there could be “shady forces outside Greece” working “to destabilize the country,” but critics aren’t buying it.
“It was obvious that the government was lying,” said George Katrougalos, the former Greek foreign minister from SYRIZA who was on the parliamentary committee where Kontoleon’s admissions sparked a political crisis.
The stories brought renewed attention to the dangers of spyware at a time when virtually everyone has a cell phone. Cell phones are essentially tracking devices, and many users don’t have VPN’s or anti-virus programs to protect themselves.
“It can watch, it can record,” said PASOK spokesman Dimitrios Mantzos, who maintained that, in this case, the government was the party behind the tracking. “It’s too Greek for us to understand, but it’s all Greek,” he told the paper.
Koukakis, whose case was essentially forgotten, said what happened to him put the spotlight on surveillance techniques that some analysts say are too tempting for governments to resist.
“The revelation of Androulakis’ case is a blessing for me,” said Koukakis, who added that he believes Mitsotakis was informed about the surveillance but blamed Kontoleon and Grigoriadis.
The story broke not long after Mitsotakis said he wouldn’t call snap polls and would finish his term before mid-2023 elections. The turmoil, however, could continue, as New Democracy’s lead in polls has fallen to only five percent.
Androulakis said the scandal won’t be forgotten soon and told the paper he thinks the government is spying on people. Nonetheless, at the moment, no other names have emerged from the thousands that are likely being monitored through their cell phones.
“I never expected the Greek government to put me under surveillance using the darkest [of] practices,” he said.