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Greece: phone-tapping Olympics

by talos Fri Feb 3rd, 2006 at 03:34:16 PM EST

The USA had its domestic-spying-NSA scandal, but now here is a high-profile [and spy movie-like] case from Europe. Can we trust our mobile phone companies anymore? Promoted by DoDo

The Greek government announced yesterday that one hundred mobile phones were illegally tapped including mobile phones belonging to the Prime Minister and key cabinet Ministers.
The eavesdropping operation was set-up by some sort of software inserted in Vodafone's systems (Vodafone is the second largest mobile telephony provider in Greece). The technology used for the phone-tapping was described as "very sophisticated".

The list of people and organizations targeted by the phone tapping included - apart from the government members, EU commissioner Stavros Dimas, the Mayor of Athens, the socialist former Minister of Defence, high-ranking military officials involved in arms procurement, a company partially owned by the PM's family, the PM's wife, one US embassy phone number, anti-authoritarian human rights activists and lawyers, journalists (including an Al-Jazeera correspondent in Athens), anarchists and various people with Arabic and Pakistani names (some of whom were described as "businessmen", but there is no confirmation of their identities yet).

A rather suggestive list...

The Greek government was made aware of the phone taps on March 10 2005, but only after Vodafone had removed the surveillance software (or so they say...), thus making it impossible to track where the intercepted calls were diverted to. This is technically legal (they ensured that their customers weren't spied upon), but is criminally negligent and, if accurate, should create some serious legal issues for the company, as is the fact that the individuals whose phones were tapped, were not notified until yesterday - and then not by their provider (who is legally responsible of informing them about such a matter) but by the government. Apparently, very few people knew about these events until yesterday, and that includes most of the cabinet and military top brass. Peak surveillance activity occurred around the time of the Athens Olympics, but it was still going on when it was uncovered.

Add to that, the (now suspicious) suicide of a Vodafone software security employee, just one day before the company reported the tapping to the government and two days after the surveillance software was detected, and you have a spy thriller in the making - as well as one of Greece's greatest scandals ever (and that's saying a lot).

Note that military officers who spoke today to the newspapers suggest that the uncanny ability of major defense contractors to react to even off-the-record private conversations, should now be investigated in light of these events.

Interestingly, the government not only didn't go out of its way to deny obvious suspicions directed towards certain foreign secret services but, by disclosing the location of the antennas that relayed the intercepted phone calls, it actually pointed, very diplomatically, a finger to a possible culprit. To understand why, take a look at the following image:

[created and explained by Greek blogger Roman.]

You see what I mean...

The Athens daily Eleftherotypia has posed nine unanswered questions about the phone-tapping, which comprise indeed the crux of this story:

  1. Why did Vodafone erase the software before notifying the government?
  2. Or did it? Is it just politically embarrassing to reveal the identity of the eavesdroppers?
  3. How did they insert the software into the system?
  4. Were they listening-in on the Prime Minister's conversations during politically critical periods?
  5. How did the eavesdroppers learn the phone numbers of the people they were tracking, given the fact that the phone numbers were often anonymous or organizational?
  6. Has anything similar happened to other mobile telephony providers?
  7. Why didn't the company immediately notify the independent Privacy Protection Committee?
  8. Did any of this have an effect on army procurements?
  9. Why weren't the targets of the phone tapping notified?
  10. Why did the Greek government so readily point the finger towards the US embassy?

Finally some broader questions: Do you think that this is an isolated incident which occurred only because of the exceptional circumstances surrounding these past Olympics' security? Or are similar surveillance operations occurring in other European countries, as we speak? Has the EU as an organisation, effective privacy protection policies, or are EU directives making such violations easier?

Maybe I'm missing something here...but who is really behind this spying?

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Fri Feb 3rd, 2006 at 12:21:47 PM EST
Well, officially no one knows. And the way the investigation has gone it will be hard to ever determine with any certainty... But IMHO it would seem likely that the building in the middle of the triangle in the image above, might have something to do with it...

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom - William Blake
by talos (mihalis at gmail dot com) on Fri Feb 3rd, 2006 at 12:27:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Isolated as they are within the EU, and always playing second fiddle to Turkey in its US relations, they are the target more often than not.

Once before the Olympics (Greece paid hundreds of millions of dollars to a US military contractor that delivered nothing but junk for security equipment) and once more recently (Greece procured jetfighters from the US for a bill that was triple the original agreement) the gov't has had to ante up an immense amount to American military interests, with little to show in return.

This amounts to a tax. And we all know, that once you start to feed the beast, the beast will begin to take an interest in the source of its next meal. The real question is, didn't the Greek gov't expect this kind of eavesdropping?

Vodafone, who owns it?

by Upstate NY on Fri Feb 3rd, 2006 at 03:49:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, who owns a multinational in this day and age?

Vodafone is nominally a UK company, but it has large interests in the US market and is quoted on the FTSE and NYSE.

I'm a bit tired, so maybe I am misreading it, but the operations seems to have been undertaken at a relatively local level. Bribing/blackmailing the 2 or 3 employees necessary to do this is within the ability of most foreign governments.

by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Fri Feb 3rd, 2006 at 04:48:07 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It seems that it would take possibly more than a couple of employees. Vodafone is implying as much - although they would, wouldn't they. Apparently (and its all quite sketchy at the moment) the perpetrators used a "backdoor" that was not installed in the original system, because it wasn't part of the software Vodafone purchased (meaning that their supplier, Ericsson in this case, would have had to be involved?) The set up was impressive though, they used 14 different "transmitter" phones with card-phone numbers in disuse by the original owners, which then passed the intercepted calls on to... somewhere. All the phones were in the vicinity of the antennas shown on the map. Frankly the technical part of the story isn't quite clear... But the suicide of the Vodafone technician seems more and more suspect as the press starts asking questions. He was, it seems quite likely, part of the team that discovered the leak.

Also I can't think of many foreign governments with interests broad enough to be concerned about government figures, military officials, journalists, Arab businessmen, anarchists and human rights groups. Actually I can think of one (OK maybe two).

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom - William Blake

by talos (mihalis at gmail dot com) on Fri Feb 3rd, 2006 at 06:14:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Oh, I am certain that an examination of the list of those spied on can give good clues to the country behind the spying. I suspect we all suspect the same suspect, to be Rumsfeldian in phrasing.

But, I don't know if we have enough detail to say whether this is corruption of Vodafone at a low or a high level. As you say it's not a completely simple operation, but having worked in a large telco, it doesn't sound to me that hard to do either.

This is not to say that Vodafone is innocent, but just to remind us that if it is low level stuff then it can (and will) be done at any company, not just "cooperative" ones.

by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Fri Feb 3rd, 2006 at 07:57:21 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I am not surprised that phones had been tapped and I think that Greece is definitely not an isolated case.  What surprises me, though, is the reaction of the Greek government. It is strange that it publicly admitted the fact that high officials had been tapped and it didn't even blame Vodafone for erasing the software and thus making further investigation impossible. Also, New Democracy--the party currently in power in Greece--is traditionally pro-US, which makes it quite unexpected for the government to point at the US embassy as possibly involved in the scandal.
by ccarc on Fri Feb 3rd, 2006 at 05:17:08 PM EST
Bulgaria had a similar problem a few years ago. They found out that somebody was taping the phones of many politicians, as well as the country's Chief Prosecutor (who, according to our Constitution, has full immunity and is basically untouchable).

Of course, it was a huge scandal and it came out that it was the (then) prime minister who had ordered the tapping. The reason mentioned was domestic security. No consequences followed.

Politicians have the habit of getting away with these things.

"Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think." - BUDDHA

by JulyMorning (july_jdb(at)yahoo(dot)com) on Fri Feb 3rd, 2006 at 05:27:56 PM EST

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