31 Aug “I am Not a Crook”: Spyware that’s Creating Crisis in the E.U.
While Richard Nixon never admitted to being involved with the break-in of the Democratic National Committee, in 1972, he did resign, famously saying “I am Not a Crook” as he left the Whitehouse.
Fifty years later, bugging the opponent is easier and more nefarious.
On July 12, 2021, Athens-based financial journalist, Thanasis Koukakis received a text message. The message came from a number he didn’t recognize. He had spent the previous three years investigating the changes the government had been making to financial crime regulation. The text had a link to a news story about a Greek banking scandal, and almost automatically he clicked the link.
Predator was released, spyware that crept through his phone to monitor his calls and messages.
By the time Koukakis read a report about spyware being detected throughout countries in Europe, he barely remembered the text message that had pulled him into what’s being called Europe’s Watergate scandal. He did know that he had clicked links that appeared to be linked to CNN Greece, the face of the spyware link because at the time he worked as an editor for CNN Greece.
In 2020 he had concerns and he filed a complaint with the Hellenic Authority for Communication Security and Privacy (HACCP). They said they found no evidence of his phone being monitored but he switched phones anyway. Predator, came through his new phone, and ‘Citizen Lab’, a digital rights group in Canada contacted him. They informed him that his phone was being surveilled and provided him with a report. This time when he contacted the HACSP, he had proof.
The investigation that followed revealed that Koukakis was not alone. Nikos Androulakis, leader of PASOK which is Greece’s third largest political party revealed he had also received a link infected with the spyware. Fortunately, he didn’t click on it.
Officials have resigned however, finding those responsible has not been easy and the government of Greece has still not acknowledged the problem or offered a solution.
While ‘Citizen Lab’ was able to trace Predator to a North Macedonian company called Cytrox, and is now owned by WiSpear, a Cypress-based company, the trail ended there. No contact information for the company has been found and the rights group was unable to get their website to load.
The ripple effects of the scandal are reaching the heart of the European Union. Over the past 13 months, it has been revealed that spyware had targeted a certain group of people which included opposition leaders, journalists, lawyers and activists in France, Spain, Hungary, Poland and staff within the European Commission, the EU’s cabinet-style government, between 2019 and 2021.
Most of the surveillance software used to surveil within the European Union scandal can be traced to the NSO Group. Pegasus, the premium spyware program created by NSO, is used by countries throughout the world. It has been classified, by Israel, as a weapon and is allegedly only allowed to be distributed outside of the state with the approval of the government.
Companies like NSO and WiSpear, are acting as the “plumbers” from Watergate, only they don’t need a roll of duct tape when they enter the offices in the dead of night to target the opposition. They have the technology to send a seemingly harmless message in order to steal your information and your conversations. What’s scarier still is that detecting spyware on a person’s phone can successfully determine the company that created the spyware, but it can’t detect who paid for it.
Someone is a crook, but no one’s taking the blame or asking for credit.