After continually deflecting accusations that it surveilled droves of politicians and journalists using invasive phone-tapping software, the Greek government has decided to ban the sale of spyware altogether. But the government also wants everybody to know that this is in no way an admission of guilt and that it definitely didn’t do anything wrong, thank you very much.
“We won’t allow any shadow to remain on issues that poison Greek society,” a government spokesperson unreassuringly told journalists Monday, in reference to the ongoing scandal.
Understanding what people are calling Greece’s spyware-fueled “Watergate” is a little complicated, and requires a bit of a digression.
This whole thing started back in July, when Nikos Androulakis, a Greek politician and member of the European parliament, was discovered to have been targeted with a mobile spyware known as “Predator.” Known for its ability to secretly infiltrate and steal data from mobile devices, Predator is sold by the company Cytrox, based in North Macedonia. Androulakis obviously was not pleased with the news that he had been targeted and suggested that someone promptly investigate what happened.
At the time, suspicions were raised that the culprit might be the Greek government. Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the nation’s prime minister, subsequently denied any wrongdoing and suggested that the incident be investigated.
Well, people did investigate and it turns out (*surprise*) Greece’s intelligence service did monitor Androulakis. But the government claims this surveillance didn’t involve Predator in any way. Mitsotakis similarly alleges that he had no prior knowledge of this surveillance activity and dubbed it a “legal” but unethical operation.
Is that the end of the story? Nope. Since then, a steady stream of other politicians and journalists have discovered traces of Predator on their phones—and the scandal has proceeded to gain ever greater momentum. The ongoing disclosures have spurred an investigation by the Greek parliament as well as a slew of resignations from top bureaucrats in the Mitsotakis government, including its intelligence chief. Despite all this, the government continues to deny that it has any involvement in domestic surveillance involving Predator.
This week, the drama was ratcheted up yet another notch when the leftwing outlet Documento published a list of some 33 different politicians, journalists, and business owners that it claims have been targeted by the spyware. The list, which was compiled after a forensic investigation found traces of the malware on targets’ phones, includes a lot of important people, including a foreign minister, a finance minister, two ex-ministers of civil protection, the labor minister, the development minister, and the tourism minister, as well as some family members of those bureaucrats. It is unclear why these specific people were targets for surveillance or what information was collected about them.
The government’s response to ongoing suspicions that it’s behind all this has been to deny, deny, deny. This week, though, the government tried something slightly different, announcing that it would be issuing a blanket ban on the sale of spyware altogether inside Greece. Reuters reports that the newly announced prohibition will be formalized in an upcoming piece of legislation that, as far as we can tell, hasn’t actually been written yet.
Will this calm the ongoing furor over claims of a “malfunctioning” Greek political system? Methinks not, but it could nevertheless be a good precedent to set for other countries around the world who haven’t yet realized that the spyware industry is bad news, full stop.
Indeed, Greece isn’t the only country currently facing criticism over its use of spyware. Across Europe, similar scandals have been wreaking political chaos on governments. Close to half a dozen other EU members, including the United Kingdom, France, Poland, Spain, and Hungary, are all reeling from similar surveillance controversies—all involving off-the-shelf tools that can be purchased legally from the shady cyber weapons market.
If Greece does pass a ban on spyware use within the country, that would definitely be a step in the right direction for online privacy and security, though, surely, not the end of the story as far as the abuses committed by the commercial surveillance industry go.