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17th Apr 2021

Belgacom downplays UK hacking allegations at EU hearing

  • Belgacom is a major supplier of communications services to EU institutions in Brussels (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

Belgian telecommunications firm Belgacom has played down revelations it was hacked by British intelligence.

The state-owned company, which supplies services to EU institutions and whose subsidiary, Bics, handles data transfers between Europe and the Middle East, sent two top men to answer questions at an EU parliament hearing on Thursday (3 October).

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Its secretary general, Dirk Lybaert, told MEPs: "This is a kind of attack that a single company or country would be unable to withstand on its own … The intruder had massive resources, sophisticated means and a steadfast intent to break into our network."

But he declined to speculate on the "hypothesis" that Britain's spy hub, GCHQ, did it, as reported by German daily Der Spiegel last month on the basis of files exposed by US whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Belgacom vice president Geert Standaert echoed Lybaert in saying the malware was "extremely sophisticated."

He said "at the moment, Belgacom cannot confirm or deny allegations in the press [on British involvement]" because the case is under scrutiny by Belgian prosecutors.

He noted that Belgacom discovered the spyware in June, but it does not know how long ago it was compromised.

He added that it penetrated just 124 out of its 26,000 IT systems and that it has been "cleaned out" over the past few months. "The attack had no impact on customers," he said.

Frank Robben, Belgium's data protection chief, also claimed the intercepted data was on a minor scale and that Belgacom's "rapid reaction" fixed the bug.

For their part, MEPs voiced frustration on what they called Belgacom's evasiveness.

"Why would Belgacom internal systems be a target for a state? We’re talking about a massive, sophisticated attack," Dutch Liberal MEP Sophie in 't Veld, who chaired the hearing, said.

Claude Moraes, a British centre-left MEP, noted: "You have allegations of the UK spying on Belgian telephone systems which were part of the infrastructure of the European Union … I think that's quite an unusual allegation and of course it can't just stand, it has to be investigated."

MEPs also criticised the UK for declining to send a speaker.

They left an empty chair for GCHQ chief Iain Lobban, who had been invited, but who did not come because the UK says EU bodies have no jurisdiction on security affairs.

Two British security sources did speak out in a report also on Thursday by British state broadcaster, the BBC, on the broader US and UK snooping affair, however.

Baroness Neville-Jones, a former UK intelligence chief, who is currently Britain's special representative to business on cyber security, told the BBC's flagship news programme, Newsnight, that mass surveillance is needed to weed out terrorists.

She said the ethical issues raised by Snowden are nothing new because "there has always been a tension" between security and privacy.

David Omand, a former GCHQ head, attacked Snowden for compromising security assets.

He said the fact Snowden is now in Russia means the Kremlin has access to the thousands of secret files which he downloaded from the US' National Security Agency, in a coup which Moscow "could never have dreamed of, even in the days of Burgess, Philby and Maclean," referring to three Cold-War-era Russian agents.

Glen Greenwald, a journalist for British daily The Guardian, who helped Snowden bring the secrets to light, told Newsnight that Snowden's files are so well encrypted that neither US nor Russian intelligence could crack them.

"Data is stored on thumb drives, and on those thumb drives are very sophisticated means of encryption shells, that, as I said before, and I know this because I’ve read the documents that I have on this, not even the NSA can break," he said.

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