Greece to Ban Sale of Spyware After Government Is Accused of Surveillance
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced the ban after a news report claimed that he had directed the use of spyware against prominent politicians and journalists, which he denied.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis of Greece has acknowledged that state intelligence was monitoring an opposition party leader with a wiretap. Credit...Costas Baltas/Reuters
ATHENS — Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced on Monday that Greece would ban the sale of spyware, after his government was accused in a news report of targeting dozens of prominent politicians, journalists and businessmen for surveillance, and the judicial authorities began an investigation.
The announcement is the latest chapter in a scandal that erupted over the summer, when Mr. Mitsotakis conceded that Greece’s state intelligence service had been monitoring an opposition party leader with a traditional wiretap last year. That revelation came after the politician discovered that he had also been targeted with a spyware program known as Predator.
The Greek government said the wiretap was legal but never specified the reasons for it, and Mr. Mitsotakis said it was done without his knowledge. The government has also asserted that it does not own or use the Predator spyware, and has insisted that the simultaneous targeting with a wiretap and Predator was a coincidence.
Mr. Mitsotakis has rejected allegations that he was personally running a Predator spyware scheme. “It’s an unbelievable lie,” he said. He insisted that Greece’s intelligence service was not using Predator, but said someone outside the government might be.
On Monday, he said in a televised interview: “We will be the first country to tackle this problem and enact legislation that will explicitly ban the sale of such software in our country. No other country has done it. All countries have the same problem.”
Governments the world over are struggling to regulate the use of cybersurveillance tools, the most prominent of which is Pegasus, a premium offensive cybersurveillance spyware made by the Israeli spyware company NSO Group. Predator is gaining prominence globally as a cheaper and less regulated alternative. The powerful weapons infiltrate smartphones, swoop up their contents and turn them into listening and recording devices.
They have been used to hack the phones of employees at El Salvador’s leading news outlet, El Faro, and the devices of high-ranking Palestinian diplomats. According to recently leaked emails, spyware has also been deployed by the Mexican government to compromise the phones of journalists and an activist.
Law enforcement and intelligence agencies say they need the spyware to maintain an edge over criminals and terrorists, but regulating their use and ensuring that they are not used against political opponents and journalists has proved to be difficult, even in Europe, where protections are supposed to be strong. Last year, the Biden administration blacklisted Pegasus, barring American companies from doing business with NSO, because, it said, the company had acted “contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States.”
Much about the situation in Greece remains murky. The authorities have characterized the use of Predator as illegal, though not its sale. Mr. Mitsotakis offered no details about how a ban on spyware sales would work, or how it would affect spyware use.
For months the Greek authorities ignored calls from journalists and opposition parties to investigate Predator’s maker, Intellexa, which moved its headquarters to Greece from Cyprus in 2021.
The Greek investigative reporter Thanassis Koukakis revealed he was hacked last year with Predator, which is the focus of a judicial investigation, and there are strong indications that he was also monitored by the Greek intelligence service.
The socialist party leader Nikos Androulakis, who is a member of the European Parliament, said that the Parliament’s technical services office in Brussels had found that his phone was targeted with a text message carrying Predator malware. Mr. Androulakis did not take the bait.
The investigative journalist Thanasis Koukakis said he was hacked last year with Predator and was monitored by the Greek intelligence service.Credit...Angelos Tzortzinis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
An investigation has begun into Mr. Androulakis’s case.
Mr. Mitsotakis acknowledged that Greece’s state intelligence service had been monitoring Mr. Androulakis with a traditional wiretap under a special warrant. The surveillance had been ordered ostensibly for reasons of national security. The monitoring ended without any action by the authorities.
On Sunday, the Greek newsmagazine Documento reported that a shady surveillance network answering to Mr. Mitsotakis had targeted Antonis Samaras, a former conservative prime minister; the current foreign and finance ministers; and other cabinet members perceived as potential rivals to Mr. Mitsotakis in a possible leadership challenge. (The next Greek elections must be held before summer 2023.)
According to the report, the surveillance had been conducted out of the Greek state intelligence service and had made use of Predator. The newsmagazine cited as its sources two unnamed people who had key roles in the surveillance, but did not offer evidence to back the allegations.
The accusations sparked a political uproar, with the government’s spokesman, Giannis Oikonomou, saying they were based on no evidence and describing the magazine’s publisher, Kostas Vaxevanis, as a “national slanderer.”
Mr. Vaxevanis, an investigative journalist who is broadly perceived as having close ties with the leftist opposition party Syriza, said he had hard evidence, including recorded conversations, and would reveal all in due time. On Monday, he visited Greece’s Supreme Court after the prosecutor ordered an investigation into the claims.
Syriza’s spokesman, Nasos Iliopoulos, denounced the authorities for not offering convincing answers regarding the work of Greek intelligence and for not investigating Intellexa.
The claims in Documento came after a European Parliament committee investigating the use of surveillance malware called on the Greek authorities to conduct a deeper inquiry.
The results of a Greek parliamentary investigation were inconclusive, with lawmakers from the governing party finding no evidence of wrongdoing. The opposition called it a cover-up.
Niki Kitsantonis reported from Athens, and Matina Stevis-Gridneff from New York.