GREECE’S SURVEILLANCE SCANDAL MUST SHAKE US OUT OF COMPLACENCY
A surveillance scandal that has smouldered for almost a year erupted this week when the leader of Greece’s main opposition party filed a no-confidence motion against the government after a string of exposés revealed cases of journalists and politicians targeted with spyware and/or under state surveillance.
The controversy began in March last year when digital rights group Citizen Lab informed journalist, Thanasis Koukakis, that his phone had been under surveillance for ten weeks by powerful spyware called Predator. Four months later, it emerged that Nikos Androulakis, the leader of the opposition party PASOK-KINAL, had also been targeted with the same spyware.
Almost a year since this scandal broke, people in Greece are still awaiting the outcome of ongoing judicial investigations into the allegations of surveillance, and for improvements to safeguards on the right to privacy.
Following the revelation that Koukakis’s phone had been infected with spyware, it was revealed that he had also been wiretapped by the National Intelligence Service. Meanwhile, the government admitted that Androulakis had been placed under what they claimed to be legal state surveillance – yet they denied they used Predator.
Since April 2022, three known criminal investigations for spyware allegations have been initiated. The third probe commenced after the Greek newspaper Documento published a list of high-profile individuals who were allegedly under state surveillance and/or targeted with Predator.
In December 2022, Euractiv reported that investigative journalist Tasos Telloglou, who is conducting investigations into spyware use in Greece, was also under state surveillance for unknown national security reasons.
In a parliamentary debate this week, Alexis Tsipras, the leader of the main opposition party SYRIZA, revealed the names of some individuals under state surveillance, listed in a report by the country’s telecom watchdog. A government minister and the chief of armed forces were included on the list.
Despite the numerous allegations and public outrage, the Greek government continues to deny having ever purchased or used Predator spyware. Yet in December 2022, The New York Times reported that the Greek government granted export licences for Predator to Intellexa, a spyware company. Media outlets also investigated the alleged connections of state officials with the companies involved in the circulation of Predator.
In the absence of meaningful government transparency, such intrusive surveillance has a widespread effect on journalists and civil society well beyond those who can prove they have been targeted. They continue their work under the constant fear that they are being spied on. Speaking to Amnesty International, Thanasis Koukakis, described how the targeting had impacted his work resulting in him enhancing the security of his communications and meeting his sources in person.
Last November, under mounting pressure, the government announced it would introduce a law that would “ban the sale of spyware”. Yet the surveillance bill adopted last December, legalizes the procurement of surveillance technology by the authorities, making it possible to undertake the identical abuse that was at the core of the recent surveillance scandal.
The law, which has been criticized by civil society, opposition parties and independent administrative authorities, does not provide an effective remedy for individuals subjected to surveillance for national security reasons. Under the legislation, an individual has to wait three years to find out if they have been the subject of surveillance, and they can only be notified on the surveillance measures and for how long they were targeted. They cannot be told why they were placed under surveillance.
The framework of the new law fails the tests of independence as two out of the three members of the committee tasked to decide on whether a subject of surveillance will be informed are part of the prosecutorial authorities that had initially authorized the interception of communications.
In early January, an Opinion issued by Greece’s Supreme Court Prosecutor concluded that the country’s telecom watchdog cannot investigate mobile phone providers after individuals request to find out whether they have been wire-tapped for national security reasons, and warned that such investigations could attract criminal sanctions. The Opinion, which appears aimed at undermining independent oversight of state surveillance, was criticized by constitutional experts, bar associations and opposition parties.
In November 2022, the Pegasus (PEGA) committee, established in 2022 to investigate the abuse of spyware by EU governments, visited Greece. The body’s rapporteur, Sophie in ‘t Veld, called on the Greek authorities to provide clarity on the use of spyware before this year’s elections.
On 24 January, the PEGA committee presented draft recommendations expressing grave concern about the EU’s “fundamental inadequacy…to respond to attacks on democracy” from within the bloc. The recommendations, which are expected to be voted on in April, include country-specific recommendations for Poland, Hungary, Spain, Cyprus and Greece. Greece is called upon to urgently restore and strengthen institutional and legal safeguards and ensure that the authorities can freely and in an unhindered manner investigate all allegations of the use of spyware.
In the wake of the Pegasus Project, which revealed that spyware had been used to target journalists, human rights defenders and politicians around the world, there is an urgent need for an international moratorium on the development, use, transfer and sale of spyware technologies until there is a global legal framework in place to prevent these abuses.
Greece’s surveillance scandal offers yet another reminder of the fragility of the rights to privacy and freedom of expression.
It is beyond time that the Greek authorities provide safeguards for people who might be targeted with spyware or subjected to state surveillance. Furthermore, impartial, prompt and thorough investigations must be carried out into all allegations of unlawful surveillance.
The vote on the no-confidence motion will take place on Friday, following a three-day debate. Although the motion is not expected to be approved, the shockwaves of this scandal will be felt for many months and years to come, and they must shake all of us out of complacency.
This article was first published here in Euro Observer