Why you should care about the Greek wiretapping scandal

Greece’s national intelligence service surveilled an opposition figure, raising questions about privacy and democracy.

In this photograph taken on July 26, 2022 Nikos Androulakis, a member of European Parliament and president of the Movement for Change (Pasok-Kinal) party, talks to media after filing a complaint at the Supreme Court in Athens over attempted spying on his mobile phone with Predator malware. (Photo by Eurokinissi / AFP)
In this photograph taken on July 26, 2022, Nikos Androulakis, a member of the European Parliament, talks to the media after filing a complaint at the Supreme Court in Athens over attempted spying [Eurokinissi/AFP]

A wiretapping scandal has engulfed Greece, with revelations that an opposition politician, Nikos Androulakis, was spied on in 2021.

The ruling right-wing government and national intelligence service are implicated in the case of Androulakis, leader of the centre-left Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) party, which has launched an inquiry to investigate why he was surveilled.

The development comes at a critical time, with Greek politicians preparing for legislative elections next year, and the scandal threatens to harm Athens’ relationship with the European Union.

Here’s what you need to know:

What’s happening?

During a routine cybersecurity check at the end of July, the European Parliament informed Androulakis of an attempt to tap his phone with surveillance software known as Predator.

An investigation into the breach revealed that while the spyware was ultimately unsuccessful in bugging Androulakis’s phone, Greece’s National Intelligence Service (EYP) had surveilled him from September 2021 until December 13, 2021, when he was elected as leader of PASOK.

For the past three years, the EYP has been under the direct control of conservative Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis of the New Democracy party.

“I never expected the Greek government to spy on me using the darkest practices,” Androulakis said during a televised address after the revelation in August.

Two top officials resigned from their jobs in the wake of the crisis, including the head of the intelligence service, Panagiotis Kontoleon, and the prime minister’s chief of staff and nephew, Grigoris Dimitriadis.

But Mistsotakis told a news conference on August 8: “Everything was done in accordance with the law; it was wrong. I didn’t know about it, and I would never allow it.

“The Greek intelligence service underestimated the political dimension of this action.”

The government has not said why Androulakis was targeted.

Dimitrios Kairidis, a politician with the ruling party, has said that revealing the reason behind the surveillance would violate existing laws.

Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou called for an investigation and said in a statement that protecting the right to privacy was “a fundamental condition of a democratic and liberal society” and that respect for democracy transcends politics.

PASOK politician and former justice minister Haris Kastanidis told the Reuters news agency: “There are huge question marks that must be answered. Are there more politicians and journalists under surveillance? Who decided the legal phone tapping and why?”

George Katrougalos, a lawyer for the main opposition party, Syriza, said: “Either there was a national security reason, meaning Androulakis was a spy, or there wasn’t, and therefore the phone tapping was illegal.”

Stavros Malichudis, a Greek journalist who covers migration, was also spied on for “national security reasons”.

Malichudis told Al Jazeera: “This [spying] means a breach of duty. EYP officials are not paid by taxpayers’ money to spy on journalists or politicians. By turning their attention to them, they are neglecting their duty and ignore the … actual threats.

“[The] EYP is a totally uncontrollable state agency whose officials know they will not be held accountable for their actions. It’s disappointing, but we are not going to learn more through this parliamentary probe – only journalism can and will do that.”

Why should you care?

With the EU Parliament having already committed to investigating the use of Pegasus, a powerful spyware software found on the devices of world leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron in 2019, the use of North Macedonian Predator software in Greece is being closely followed in Brussels.

But Mitsotakis, who was once praised by the EU for his handling of the pandemic and condemnation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, could now be in trouble with the bloc.

As the phone tapping took place when Androulakis was serving as a Member of the European Parliament (MEP), the security breach could have violated EU data protection laws.

In response to a letter from the European Commission (EC) asking about the wiretap, Greece’s Permanent Representative to the EU, Ioannis Vrailas, said it was “highly debatable” that any of the points raised by Brussels about the wiretapping revelations lay within the framework of the commission.

However, the liberal Dutch MEP Sophie in’t Veld cited the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), drafted and passed by the EU, as a reason for Brussels’ involvement.

Writing on Twitter in response to Vrailas, she said: “Slight correction to @vrailas: the spyware scandal is very much European competence. That is why @Europarl_EN @EP_Pegalnquiry is investigating. Apart from violating EU laws ao #GDPR, MEPs and @EU_Commision officials were targeted. And [national governments] are part of the council.”

What’s expected next?

Calls for Mitsotakis to resign have grown, but he has promised to see out his four-year term.

An opinion poll by GPO in late August saw 58.3 percent say the wiretapping hurt their trust in the government, while 40.6 per cent said they were unaffected.

On August 29, a majority of Greek politicians – 142 of 157 – voted for an investigation into the wiretap.

They now have at least a month to carry out the probe and also examine reported wiretaps in 2016, allegedly under the then government.

As for Mitsotakis, he has rejected suggestions that the EYP uses Predator software despite the spyware linked to a Cyprus-registered, Athens-based firm called Intellexa.

Androulakis and Malichudis were not the only hacking victims, however.

In April, Citizen Lab, a research group specialising in spyware technology, found evidence of Predator software being used to infiltrate the phone of the journalist Thanasis Koukakis for 10 weeks in 2021.

Malichudis explained that his case against the EYP has now been merged with Koukakis after the former EYP director reportedly admitted in a hearing that they had both been surveilled for national security reasons.

However, Malichudis does not think the probe will lead to anything substantial and told Al Jazeera, “It’s safe to say nothing will come out of this probe. Already, officials (eg, a former EYP director who resigned recently) who have been invited to testify in the parliamentary probe have refused to give specific answers, with the excuse that it concerns ‘classified information’.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies