28th Mar 2023


Greece's spy scandal must shake us out of complacency

  • PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Activists and NGO staff work with the constant fear that they are being spied on (Photo: Nea Demokratia)
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A surveillance scandal that has smouldered for almost a year erupted this week after the leader of Greece's main opposition party filed a no-confidence motion against the government after a string of exposés that journalists and politicians were targeted with spyware and/or were under state surveillance.

The controversy began in March last year when digital rights group Citizen Lab told journalist Thanasis Koukakis that his phone had been under surveillance for ten weeks by powerful spyware called Predator.

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  • Under the new Greek legislation, an individual has to wait three years to find out if they have been the subject of surveillance — and they cannot be told why they were placed under surveillance (Photo: Blogtrepreneur)

Four months later, it emerged that Nikos Androulakis, the leader of 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 to 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, the authorities have ordered at least three criminal investigations into the use of spyware. The third probe commenced after the Greek newspaper Documento published a list of high-profile individuals who were allegedly under state surveillance or had been 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 myriad 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 revealed that the Greek government granted export licences for Predator to Intellexa, an spyware company. Greek media outlets also reported on alleged links between state officials and the companies involved in the circulation of Predator.  

The 'chilling effect'

These deeply intrusive acts of state-sanctioned surveillance have had a chilling effect not only on individual journalists, but on civil society as a whole. Activists and NGO staff work with the constant fear that they are being spied on. Koukakis told Amnesty International that he now only meets sensitive sources in person, and feels he cannot communicate safely on his phone.

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, legalises the procurement of surveillance technology by the authorities, making it possible to undertake the identical abuse that was at the core of last year's surveillance scandal.

The law, which has been heavily criticised 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 of the specific measures used, and for how long they were targeted. They cannot be told why they were placed under surveillance.

The framework for the new law is also utterly lacking in impartiality. Two out of the three members of the committee tasked to decide whether a subject of surveillance will be informed are still working for the prosecuting authorities that authorized the interception of communications in the first place.

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 appeared to be aimed at undermining independent oversight of state surveillance, was criticised by constitutional experts 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. 

Not just Greece

The recommendations, which are expected to be voted on in April, include country-specific recommendations for Poland, Hungary, Spain, Cyprus and Greece. The committee called on Greece to urgently restore and strengthen legal safeguards against spyware, and ensure that the authorities can freely investigate all allegations of its use.

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 digital surveillance.

The vote on the no-confidence motion will take place on Friday (27 January), 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.

Author bio

Glykeria Arapi is director of Amnesty International Greece.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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