Predator: Greek government should eliminate all doubts about spyware use

Members of the Pegasus investigative committee see many indications that the Greek government could be involved in the local espionage scandal.

(Image: iHaMoo/Shutterstock.com)

After a four-day stay by ten members of the European Parliament’s investigative committee into the use of Pegasus and comparable spy software in Cyprus and Greece, Sophie in ‘t Veld drew a sobering conclusion in Athens on Friday: “We will not find out the truth as long as the authorities unwilling to share important information with us.”

But even if not all pieces of the puzzle are in place, the MEP believes that the conservative government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is deeply involved in what has become known as the “Greek Watergate” espionage scandal.

In ‘t Veld emphasized that if she were to sit in Mitsotakis’ chair, she would be anxious to eliminate “every shred of doubt” that the government of the New Democracy party was acting in accordance with the law. “It’s about trust.” After all, the head of government also sits on the EU Council and thus helps to shape legislation for the entire community. There remained many question marks over the official line of the Athens leadership.

The tangible surveillance scandal began in the summer when the head of the opposition party Pasok, Nikos Androulakis, discovered the spyware Predator from the manufacturer Intellexa, which is comparable to Pegasus, on his smartphone. In August, the government admitted that classic telecommunications surveillance had been carried out at Androulakis. However, it was a legal wiretapping operation, not the use of spyware, which would have been illegal in Greece.

Since then, however, a growing group of politicians and journalists have found out that their mobile phones appear to have Predator installed. Just last week, for example, the investigative report Tasos Telloglou made public his personal experiences with “dystopian” surveillance by spy software and on-site spying. Mitsotakis’ chief of staff and nephew, Grigoris Dimitriadis, and the Greek intelligence chief have since resigned from their posts.

There are actually only two scenarios, clarified in ‘t Veld after talks with Greek Minister of State George Gerapetritis. Either Intellexa itself installed the Trojans on the cell phones or it was actors from the government environment. In favor of the latter, four of the victims posed a threat to the executive due to their critical reporting and policies, and the ruling party had a good opportunity to have access to the spyware in principle.

The liberals complained that key figures had not been heard during the Greek parliament’s investigation into the incidents. These important witnesses “didn’t even answer our questions”. In addition, the Greek colleagues and authorities only made a “polite visit” to the Intellexa branch: no servers were confiscated, and company subsidiaries were left out. A lot of evidence may have been destroyed in this way, although monitoring with spyware is a criminal offense.

In ‘t Veld also criticized the Greek implementation of the requirements for legally permissible telecommunications surveillance. Until recently, a public prosecutor was responsible for 60 surveillance requests per day without the knowledge of those affected. This means that the required effective control cannot be carried out. The reference to national security, for example, when eavesdropping on opposition representatives, also acts as a pretext: the argument is intended to give the impression that everything is legal and that there is nothing else to see.

The chairman of the Pegasus Committee, Jeroen Lenaers, was surprised that the Greek MPs had only found out a few facts and even kept them under wraps, citing data protection. The individual parties had also only written their own reports, there was no joint decision. Minister Gerapetritis answered all the questions put to him, but “not always to our complete satisfaction”. In any case, he again denied the purchase or use of Predator by the Greek authorities. Despite repeated requests, a meeting with representatives of Intellexa did not take place.

The Dutch conservative did not want to compare the Greek situation with Hungary and Poland. In both countries, the governments admitted to using Pegasus. However, this was necessary for the interests of internal security. Lenaers countered: The committee could not imagine that this instrument “has to be used against so many people for this purpose”. He, therefore, assumes an abuse of power. In addition, in Hungary and Poland, there is no control system at all in this area.

In a written answer to questions from the Pegasus Committee, the Greek parliament explains that the marketing or sale of spyware is not regulated nationally. However, the Criminal Code prohibits “interfering with any equipment, connection or network, or any hardware or software system, used for the provision of telephone service, or accessing any electronic system or electronic data in violation of any protective measure or without a right”. Consequently, there are no regulations for dealing with zero-day vulnerabilities, “but their use is illegal”.

According to Lenaers, Gerapetritis announced to the committee members that the government intends to present a bill in mid-November to establish a more comprehensive ban on the distribution or use of spy software. The MEP praised this suggestion as an important step in getting other governments in the Council of Ministers to take relevant measures more seriously.

Pavol Szalai, head of the EU department at Reporters Without Borders, complained that the Greek authorities’ silence on the new cases of journalists being spied on was “deafening”. The government in Athens must urgently explain the reasons for the alleged state surveillance of Telloglou and his colleagues who are researching “Predatorgate” and “announce concrete measures for better protection against arbitrary espionage”. The civil society organization has published recommendations to fill loopholes in the legal system, such as the lack of judicial oversight and specific protections for journalists.

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