Thursday

26th May 2022

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).

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

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.

Orbán's new state of emergency under fire

Hungary's premier Viktor Orbán declared a state of emergency due to the war in neighbouring Ukraine hours after pushing a constitutional amendment through parliament, where two-thirds of MPs are controlled by his Fidesz party, allowing his government special powers.

News in Brief

  1. Dutch journalists sue EU over banned Russia TV channels
  2. EU holding €23bn of Russian bank reserves
  3. Russia speeds up passport process in occupied Ukraine
  4. Palestinian civil society denounce Metsola's Israel visit
  5. Johnson refuses to resign after Downing Street parties report
  6. EU border police has over 2,000 agents deployed
  7. Dutch tax authorities to admit to institutional racism
  8. Rutte calls for EU pension and labour reforms

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic delegation visits Nordic Bridges in Canada
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersClear to proceed - green shipping corridors in the Nordic Region
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers agree on international climate commitments
  4. UNESDA - SOFT DRINKS EUROPEEfficient waste collection schemes, closed-loop recycling and access to recycled content are crucial to transition to a circular economy in Europe
  5. UiPathNo digital future for the EU without Intelligent Automation? Online briefing Link

Latest News

  1. EU summit will be 'unwavering' on arms for Ukraine
  2. Orbán's new state of emergency under fire
  3. EU parliament prevaricates on barring Russian lobbyists
  4. Ukraine lawyer enlists EU watchdog against Russian oil
  5. Right of Reply: Hungarian government
  6. When Reagan met Gorbachev — a history lesson for Putin
  7. Orbán oil veto to deface EU summit on Ukraine
  8. France aims for EU minimum-tax deal in June

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us