February 8, 2023

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Greece bans spyware sales after government was accused of surveillance

ATHENS — Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced on Monday Greece would ban the sale of spyware, after a news report accused his government of targeting dozens of prominent politicians, journalists and businessmen for surveillance and judicial authorities opened an investigation .

The announcement is the latest chapter in a scandal that erupted over the summer, when Mr Mitsotakis admitted that Greek state intelligence had been monitoring an opposition party leader with a traditional listening device for the past year. This revelation came after the politician discovered he had also been targeted with a spyware program called Predator.

The Greek government said the wiretapping was legal but never gave the reasons why, and Mr Mitsotakis said it was done without his knowledge. The government has also claimed that it does not possess or use the Predator spyware and has insisted that the simultaneous targeting of a listening device and Predator was a fluke.

Mr Mitsotakis has denied allegations that he personally operated a Predator spyware program. “That is an unbelievable lie,” he said. He insisted Greek intelligence wasn’t using Predator, but said someone outside the government could.

In a TV interview on Monday, he said: “We will be the first country to address this issue and enact legislation specifically prohibiting the sale of such software in our country. No other country has done it. All countries have the same problem.”

Governments around the world are struggling to regulate the use of cybersurveillance tools, the most famous of which is Pegasus, a top-notch offensive cybersurveillance spyware by Israeli spyware company NSO Group. Predator is gaining traction around the world as a cheaper and less regulated alternative. The powerful weapons infiltrate smartphones, snatch their contents and turn them into listening and recording devices.

They were used to hack the phones of employees of El Faro, El Faro, El Salvador’s leading news agency, and the devices of senior Palestinian diplomats. Spyware was also used by the Mexican government to compromise the phones of journalists and an activist, according to recently leaked emails.

Law enforcement and intelligence agencies say they need the spyware to maintain an edge against criminals and terrorists, but regulating its use and ensuring it is not used against political opponents and journalists has proven difficult, even in Europe, where the protection should be be strong. Last year, the Biden administration blacklisted Pegasus and banned American companies from doing business with NSO because the company acted “against national security or the foreign policy interests of the United States.”

Much of the situation in Greece remains in the dark. Authorities have ruled Predator’s use illegal, but not its sale. Mr. Mitsotakis did not specify how a ban on the sale of spyware would work or how it would affect spyware use.

For months, Greek authorities ignored calls from journalists and opposition parties to investigate Predator maker Intellexa, which relocated its headquarters from Cyprus to Greece in 2021.

Greek investigative reporter Thanassis Koukakis revealed he was hacked with Predator last year and also claimed he was being monitored by Greek intelligence, a claim that hasn’t been officially confirmed but is the focus of a judicial probe.

Socialist Party leader Nikos Androulakis, who is a member of the European Parliament, said that the Parliament’s technical service office in Brussels found that his phone had been targeted with a text message containing Predator malware. Mr. Androulakis didn’t take the bait.

An investigation has started in the case of Mr Androulakis.

Mr Mitsotakis admitted that the Greek State Intelligence Service monitored Mr Androulakis using a traditional listening device under a special order. The surveillance was allegedly ordered for reasons of national security. The surveillance ended without any intervention from the authorities.

On Sunday, Greek news magazine Documento reported that a shady surveillance network reporting to Mr Mitsotakis had targeted Antonis Samaras, a former conservative prime minister; the current foreign and finance ministers; and other cabinet members seen as potential rivals of Mr Mitsotakis in a possible leadership challenge. (The next Greek elections must take place before the summer of 2023.)

According to the report, the surveillance was carried out by the Greek State Secret Service and used Predator. The news outlet cited two unnamed people as sources who played key roles in the surveillance, but offered no evidence to support the claims.

The allegations sparked a political uproar, with government spokesman Giannis Oikonomou saying they were based on no evidence and calling the magazine’s editor Kostas Vaxevanis a “national slanderer”.

Mr Vaxevanis, an investigative journalist widely believed to have close ties to left-wing opposition party Syriza, said he had hard evidence, including taped conversations, and would disclose everything in a timely manner. On Monday, he visited Greece’s Supreme Court after the prosecutor ordered an investigation into the allegations.

Syriza spokesman Nasos Iliopoulos condemned the authorities for not providing convincing answers to the work of the Greek secret service and for not investigating Intellexa.

The claims in Documento came after a European Parliament committee investigating the use of surveillance malware urged Greek authorities to conduct a deeper investigation.

The results of a Greek parliamentary inquiry were inconclusive, and lawmakers from the ruling party found no evidence of wrongdoing. The opposition called it a cover-up.

Niki Kitsantonis reported from Athens and Matina Stevis-Gridneff from New York.