Surveillance state

At the roots of Greece’s spyware scandal

In the last decades, Greece has proven to be a resilient democracy that not even a devastating economic crisis could overturn. The current surveillance scandal and its political handling, however, raise the shadow of a traumatic past that no amount of file destruction could erase.

On 22 October 1981, 27-year-old Greek historian Leonidas Kallivretakis walked into the notorious General Security Sub-Directorate on Mesogeion Avenue in Athens, determined to take full ownership of his political history.

During the military dictatorship of 1967–74, the building had been a site of interrogation and torture of Communists (the country’s ‘internal enemies’) and others opposed to the junta. Eight years into restored democracy, the political climate had changed significantly: the recent triumph of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) in national elections was a decisive sign of reconciliation with the country’s long-persecuted left.

Emboldened by the shifting political atmosphere – and by PASOK’s electoral promises – Kallivretakis was the first of many Greek citizens to formally request access to their personal files. As a student, the young historian had been an activist against the military junta. Now he was claiming ownership to the state files concerning his actions and political beliefs in this regard. His efforts were to no avail. A few days later, Kallivretakis was only briefly granted access to a mere part of his personal files. Access was restricted to the office of the Minister of Public Order, and only in the presence of police escorts.1

Other Greek citizens who advanced similar requests had no better luck. It would take another eight years for Greek politics to reach a final decision on the more than 15 million files collected between the interwar period and the Metapolitefsi, the transition phase following the fall of the junta. On 29 August 1989, a peculiar coalition government between the conservative Nea Dimokratia party and the radical left sent all but about 2,000 files for destruction. Most Greeks were never allowed to know what the state knew about them.

On 12 August 2020, 39 years after Kallivretakis, financial journalist Thanasis Koukakis approached the Greek authorities with a similar query. He sought official confirmation from ADAE, the national watchdog for the privacy of communications, of what he already knew from a source – that his phone had been tapped while he was investigating major banking scandals in the country.

The journalist’s formal request remained unanswered for a whole year – enough time for the government to amend the relevant legislation. From then on, the watchdog was no longer allowed to notify citizens, upon their request, as to whether they had ever been placed under surveillance for national security reasons. In the months that followed, the Koukakis affair spiralled into a full-blown surveillance scandal which, despite all efforts to silence it, made international headlines as the ‘Greek Watergate’. 

The uncovering of two further news stories was involved in escalating things in this way – for one the surveillance of opposition politician and member of EU parliament Nikos Androulakis, and for another, the emergence of the illegal spyware known as ‘Predator’, which used highly invasive methods to spy on Koukakis and a still-unspecified number of Greek citizens.

In the four decades separating Kallivretakis’s and Koukakis’s stories, Greece has proven to be a resilient democracy that not even a devastating economic crisis could overturn. The current surveillance scandal, however, raises the shadow of a traumatic past that the destruction of secret files could not erase. 

Continuity in state surveillance

The decision to burn state surveillance files in 1989 came as no surprise: it had already been made five years earlier by the first PASOK government, which then retracted at the last minute. What’s more, it was merely part of an established approach to the country’s recent past, rooted in the way the Metapolitefsi was enacted.

Monument to the anti-dictatorship student uprising of November 1973 in Athens. Photo by StrangeTraveler. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

When democracy was restored in 1974, the so-called ‘national unity’ government faced the question of how to deal with the leaders of the military dictatorship and their accomplices. On the one hand, there was the desire to purge the state of its most heinous figures, on the other the need to avoid feeding a sense of revanchism or compromising the functioning of the state apparatus. While the high ranks of the armed forces and the academy underwent more severe dejuntification, the same was not the case in other sectors. As historian Vangelis Karamanolakis puts it, 

Most of the state apparatus, including the security bodies, retained strong links with its dictatorial past in terms of personnel and bureaucracy. If the dictatorial regime was turned into an undesired past, its legacies … were not destroyed.2

In the more than 50 years separating the end of World War I and the Metapolitefsi, the volume of surveillance files had continued to increase despite changing governments and regimes: the bureaucratic structure of the Greek state ensured continuity in the collection and cataloguing of information. With the end of the military dictatorship, this ‘deep state’ and its mentality remained largely intact and prone to be instrumentalized, this time around by democratically elected governments. 

Between the late 1980s and early 1990s, the two prominent political leaders Konstantinos Mitsotakis and Andreas Papandreou, heads of liberal-conservative Nea Dimokratia and of PASOK respectively, exchanged mutual accusations of having set up a surveillance system against political opponents and businessmen. Today, in the most recent iteration of a dynastic tradition in Greek politics, the accusations concern Konstantinos Mitsotakis’s son, Kyriakos. 

Anatomy of a scandal

One of the very first initiatives of the Nea Dimokratia government in 2019 was to bring the national intelligence service under the direct responsibility of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. His nephew Grigorios Dimitriadis took up the role of General Secretary of the Prime Minister’s office, and a legal amendment reducing the required qualifications made Panagiotis Kontoleon eligible as the new head of the National Intelligence Service, the EYP. Both Dimitriadis and Kontoleon resigned last summer when the surveillance of European Parliament member and newly elected PASOK leader Nikos Androulakis was uncovered. 

Mitsotakis deemed the wiretapping of Androulakis’s phone by the EYP legal but ‘politically unacceptable’, claiming that he would have prevented it, had he been aware of it. He denied categorically that the EYP or any other state authority had been involved in purchasing and operating the Predator spyware – a claim he never retracted, despite a plethora of journalistic investigations disproving it. 

In November, the weekly leftist newspaper Documento released a list of dozens of names including opposition members, journalists, editors, armed forces officials and even ministers of the government (and their partners) who were allegedly placed under surveillance. According to Documento’s sources, there is a single surveillance system in Greece, run by the state and resorting to both wiretapping and the more intrusive Predator spyware.

To date, the strongest piece of evidence against the government is its clear resistance to shedding light on the use of Predator in Greece. The committee set up for enquiry in the national parliament did everything in its power to cover up the affair, refusing to summon key witnesses and suspects. For months, the Greek authorities failed to search the Athenian offices of the companies trading the spyware in Greece; when they eventually did, they unsurprisingly found nothing useful for the investigation. In early November, the government went to great lengths to obstruct the Greek mission of the PEGA committee, set up by the EU parliament to investigate the use of spyware.

Most recently, the Greek chief prosecutor Isidoros Ntogiakos ruled that the privacy watchdog ADAE cannot conduct audits at telecommunication companies to find out who is under surveillance by the EYP. Opposition forces claim that, in Greece, the very rule of law is under threat.3 

Spyware fascination

Koukakis’s case wasn’t the only one to be publicly known at the time of its revelation. It had been known for some time, for example, that investigative journalist Stavros Malichudis had also been spied on by the EYP while working on migration issues. Yet it was only after the revelation that a prominent opposition politician such as Androulakis had also been the target of an (unsuccessful) Predator attack that the mainstream media seemed to take notice of the gravity of the case. 

Photo by Sascha Kohlmann. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

When the ‘Greek Watergate’ eventually blew up, it was met by a polarized public opinion. According to a survey conducted in November by Prorata4, convictions were almost equally split on whether the Prime Minister should resign.

Indeed, that Mitsotakis brought the Greek intelligence service under his direct control inevitably heightens his responsibilities for the EYP’s doings. The spying on journalists also exacerbates the decline in press freedom denounced by various independent organisations. In Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index 2022, Greece ranks last among EU countries, a 38-place decline on the previous year. Yet blaming the surveillance apparatus on Mitsotakis alone may overlook wider developments, both in Greece and at the international level. Greece’s interest in spyware predates the Nea Dimokratia government. In 2016, a year after the victory of radical left alliance SYRIZA and at the height of economic crisis, Greece was among over 40 countries where there were suspected infections with the NSO Pegasus spyware. 

In December 2022, Greek daily newspaper To Vima revealed that Alexis Tsipras’s government had been aware of a secret mission, conducted by the EYP in early 2019, to evaluate the acquisition of Pegasus from Israeli cyber-arms company NSO5. It was the fourth such purchasing attempt since 2016. In an interview, Tsipras conceded that he could not rule out the use of Pegasus in Greece during his term in office.

Spyware aside, the number of authorized wiretaps has more than tripled between 2015 and 2021. The 4,871 targets monitored when SYRIZA came to power had increased to 11,680 by the time of Nea Dimokratia’s victory four years later. In 2021, legal wiretaps totalled 15,475. Over 60 requests to lift the confidentiality of communications for national security reasons are processed daily by the prosecutor, who is not informed of the name and personal details of those being surveilled; only the phone number.6 ‘If we are called upon to accept that “somewhere out there” over 15,000 agents of foreign powers or asymmetrical warriors live and breathe among us … we are essentially being told to panic,’ journalist Pantelis Boukalas observed.7

Just like in the past, the Greek surveillance apparatus seems to follow a logic that is, at least to some extent, independent from the political leadership. As with the Predator scandal, it must be interpreted in the international context of a thriving spyware industry. 

The canary in Europe’s coal mine

The presence of Predator was made known in a 2021 report by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab. Developed by North Macedonian start-up Cytrox, Pegasus is traded by Intellexa, which describes itself as ‘EU-based and regulated, with six sites and R&D labs throughout Europe.’8 Intellexa has a presence in Greece, Cyprus, Ireland, France and Hungary. 

Predator is capable of completely taking over the infected device, recording phone calls, browsing pictures and videos, remotely activating the microphone and camera, and accessing chats and conversations – an incredibly effective surveillance asset in the era of encrypted apps. 

Unlike Pegasus, Predator needs the target to click on an infected link prior to its installation on any device. At the end of 2021, Meta identified more than 300 links emulating known news outlets and sites that had been set up as traps for Predator targets.9 Over 40 of those web domains were connected to Greece.

According to Sophie in ‘t Veld, reporting for the PEGA committee investigating the use of Pegasus and equivalent spyware, ‘Europe has become an attractive place for mercenary spyware’, while the European Union ‘is ill equipped to deal with such an attack on democracy from within.’ Spyware is ‘the canary in the coal mine: exposing the dangerous constitutional weaknesses in the EU.’ The European Council and the national governments, it was reported, are guilty of ‘omertà’. Worse, ‘some of the “perpetrators” also sit in the (European) Council’, making use of ‘national security’ as a pretext for ‘eliminating transparency and accountability.’10 

While the spyware industry is active across the globe, Predator seems to have a particularly close relationship with Greece. The Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs admitted to the New York Times, for example, that it had authorized the export of Predator to at least one other country, Madagascar. This was yet another blow to the Greek government’s claims to ignorance regarding Intellexa’s operations. 

The PEGA committee concluded that in Greece, unlike in other cases such as that of Poland, the abuse of spyware did not seem to be part of an ‘integral authoritarian strategy’, but rather ‘a tool used on an ad hoc basis for political and financial gains’. Yet even a targeted use of spyware ends up jeopardizing the integrity of elections, with negative consequences for both Greek and EU democratic integrity. 

Never waste a good scandal

Ever since the Metapolitefsi, Greece has avoided confronting its traumatic past with surveillance. The decision to burn millions of personal files was the result of a desire for national reconciliation and the suspicion – not entirely unfounded – that should the state have kept the files, it would not have left them unused. 

This ‘reconciliation by decree’ left the surveillance mentality within the Greek state apparatus largely untouched, and prevented the development of lasting antibodies in Greek society. Younger generations of Greeks, who did not directly experience the traumatic twentieth century, have shown particularly little interest in engaging with the ongoing scandal.

With galloping inflation and the cost-of-living crisis, the ‘Greek Watergate’ is not in fact high on the list of most people’s concerns. Normalized notions of surveillance capitalism may also have helped anaesthetize a large part of the Greek population towards the issue. 

Nor is the landscape encouraging at the level of the media. Investigative journalists who uncovered the scandal did so at their own risk, exposing themselves to groundless lawsuits (SLAPPs), intimidation and further surveillance. The ADAE confirmed that Tasos Telloglou, a prominent investigative reporter at InsideStory, has been monitored by the EYP. As for the mainstream media, the debate has been characterized by extreme polarization, reflecting political partisanship and publishers’ interests. Ruling Nea Dimokratia has long enjoyed favourable press coverage, which it cultivated through controversial funding allocations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

After a long phase of denial, the Greek government has at least acknowledged the surveillance issue. In December, it passed new legislation criminalizing the sale or possession of spyware. Yet it has kept denying its involvement and absolving the state apparatus in general, claiming that there is no Greek specificity but only a European and global problem of a flourishing spyware industry. 

As new revelations keep emerging, it is hard to predict the political consequences of the ongoing surveillance scandal. But ahead of this year’s general election, to be held by the summer, Greece still has an opportunity to start an honest debate on an issue which has long been swept under the carpet. Too optimistically has national reconciliation been identified with oblivion. 

The episode is recounted in Vangelis Karamanolakis, Ανεπιθύμητο Παρελθόν. Οι φάκελοι κοινωνικών φρονημάτων στον 20ό αι. και η καταστροφή τους. (Undesired Past: The archives of social beliefs in the 20th century and their destruction), Themelio, 2019, p. 174.

Ανεπιθύμητο Παρελθόν (Undesired past), p. 167.

Sarantis Michalopoulos, ‘Chief prosecutor puts Greece’s rule of law to the test’. Euractiv, 11 January 2022. Available at https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/news/chief-prosecutor-puts-greeces-rule-of-law-to-the-test/.

Prorata, Poll on the wiretapping case. Available at: https://www.docdroid.net/RZd6DkG/dimoskopisi-ypoklopes-pptx (last accessed on 11 January 2023).

Vassilis Lambropoulos, ‘Secret mission of the EYP under SYRIZA for “Pegasus”’. To Vima, 11 December 2022. Available at https://www.tovima.gr/printed_post/mystiki-apostoli-tis-eyp-epi-syriza-gia-to-pegasus/ (last accessed on 11 January 2023).

Nikolas Leontopoulos, Thodoris Chondrogiannos, ‘Enemy of the State: We prove that the Mitsotakis government was monitoring journalist Thanasis Koukakis’. Reporters United, 15 April 2022. Available at https://www.reportersunited.gr/8646/eyp-koukakis/ (last accessed on 11 January 2023).

Pantelis Boukalas, ‘Wiretapping and “national security”’, Kathimerini English, 9 August 2022. Available at https://www.ekathimerini.com/opinion/1190824/wiretapping-and-national-security/ (last accessed on 11 January 2023).

The Citizen Lab, ‘Pegasus vs. Predator: Dissident’s Doubly-Infected iPhone Reveals Cytrox Mercenary Spyware’, 16 December 2021. Available at https://citizenlab.ca/2021/12/pegasus-vs-predator-dissidents-doubly-infected-iphone-reveals-cytrox-mercenary-spyware/ (last accessed on 10 January 2023).

PEGA, ‘Findings’, 8 November 2022. Available at https://www.europarl.europa.eu/committees/en/pega-findings/product-details/20221117EOT06981 (last accessed on 10 January 2023).

Published 13 January 2023
Original in English
First published by Eurozine

© Alessio Giussani / Eurozine

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