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Greece wiretap and spyware claims circle around PM Mitsotakis

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    21 hours ago

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Image source, ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP

It has been dubbed the Greek Watergate. What began as a surveillance of a little-known journalist in Greece has evolved into an array of revelations circling around the Greek government.

The story emerged last spring, when Thanasis Koukakis found out his phone had been infected with spyware that can extract data from a device. He also discovered he had been tracked by Greece’s EYP National Intelligence Service via more traditional phone-tapping.

It then emerged that an MEP had also had his phone tapped before he became leader of Greece’s third-biggest party.

On Thursday, the spotlight turns to a European Parliament inquiry committee tasked with investigating the use of surveillance spyware in the EU. Koukakis will testify to the committee on the use of spyware in an attempt to get to the truth of why he was targeted and by whom. The government in Athens insists it does not use spyware, although phone-tapping is allowed with the consent of a prosecutor.

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“It all goes back three years, when I started investigating a series of wrongdoings that involved Greek banks and the EU bailout money used to save them from bankruptcy at the peak of the financial crisis,” Koukakis told the BBC.

After his initial reports, he began looking into a potential cover-up – a task that involved talking to members of the judiciary. He believes it was the Mitsotakis government that decided to place him under surveillance in order to eavesdrop on his exchanges with judges and their assistants.

He became suspicious when his phone began behaving strangely. The battery would run down faster than normal, while calls he made were being answered before he could hear the ringtone.

Koukakis contacted Greece’s independent Authority for Communication, Security and Privacy (ADAE) to find out if he was being tracked, but it took the watchdog a year to get back to him. By that time, the government had passed a law barring ADAE from revealing if surveillance had been carried out for national security reasons.

In his case, he says EYP tracked him for six weeks from 1 June to 12 August 2020, the day he approached the communication authority. The government has neither confirmed nor denied he came under surveillance.

Shortly before the ADAE got back to him, he received a strange text message from an unknown number. “Thanasis, are you aware of this story?” the text read, accompanied by a link which directed him to a fake site. By clicking on the link, he unknowingly installed Predator spyware on his phone.

But Koukakis was not the only target. On 21 September 2021, the same link was sent to Nikos Androulakis, a Greek MEP. The text read: “Let’s take this issue seriously mate. We’ve got a lot to win.”

Unlike the journalist, the MEP did not click on the link and Predator was never installed on his phone. He treated it as a message from a stranger and ignored it. It was only when he approached the EU’s IT experts in July 2022 that he found out there had been an attempt to install Predator on his phone.

Nikos Androulakis, a member of European Parliament and president of the Movement for Change (Pasok-Kinal) party, talks to media after filing a complaint at the Supreme Court in Athens on 26 July

Image source, Getty Images

Nikos Androulakis immediately filed a complaint to Greece’s High Court. Within days, he found out that EYP had wiretapped his phone via his mobile provider. The surveillance only stopped when he was elected head of Greece’s centre-left Pasok Movement of Change in December 2021.

The Greek government has denied that EYP is using Predator spyware. The government spokesman indicated that other, private players were behind the use of Predator in Greece and neither the government nor EYP were aware of it.

Greece’s EU ambassador, Ioannis Vrailas, wrote to the European Commission insisting EYP had never bought or used Predator software or any other illegal surveillance system.

But the prime minister has come under pressure over the affair, because it was his decision to place EYP under his direct control when he came to power in July 2019.

In a televised speech, Mr Mitsotakis said he was not aware an opposition politician had been targeted. While it was legal, he said it should not have happened: “When I was informed of it, I didn’t hesitate to admit that it was wrong.”

The escalating scandal has already claimed two big casualties. EYP head Panagiotis Kontoleon has resigned, as has the prime minister’s top aide and nephew, Grigoris Dimitriadis.

The prime minister’s office was adamant the aide had not gone because of the spyware affair, adding that he and the government were not connected to it. But the spy chief’s resignation was linked to “incorrect actions found in the procedure of legal surveillance”.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis addresses a parliament session in Athens on August 26, 2022

Image source, Getty Images

Three days after he quit, Mr Dimitriadis launched a series of lawsuits targeting media allegations linking him to the Predator story. He also sued Thanasis Koukakis for tweeting a link to the stories.

A Greek parliament investigative committee hopes to shed further light on the Androulakis affair. Many questions remain unanswered: if state authorities did not use Predator spyware, who did?

Koukakis told the BBC that more people were poised to come out with stories similar to his. He has taken his case to the European Court of Human Rights, but believes ultimately, it will be journalists who uncover what happened.

Dutch MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld, who is on the European Parliament’s inquiry committee, paints a bleak picture of the use of spyware in Europe, which she says jeopardises EU fundamental rights.

According to her, 14 EU countries alone have used Pegasus spyware: “Then there’s Predator, there’s Tykelab in Italy; there’s another branch in Austria with links to Russia; Cyprus and possibly Bulgaria are the hubs for exports, and Ireland and Luxembourg are used to manage the money flows,” she told the BBC.

Four EU governments have been accused of spying on their citizens for political reasons, she says: “Then we know that the Commission has also been targeted. This is a big mess: it’s Watergate on steroids.”

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