ATHENS – Seeking to offset criticism about a phone bugging scandal that engulfed his government, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ plan to ban the sale of spyware went to the Parliament his party controls, but a bill to bring oversight to surveillance drew the wrath of opponents.
Facing a re-election fight in 2023 – the campaign is already essentially underway as rivals jockey for position and the major opposition SYRIZA is itching for a rematch after being ousted in 2019 – Mitsotakis is trying to fend off unrelenting pressure over surveillance.
He denied that his government is using Predator spyware found on the phones of journalists and others although said the National Intelligence Service EYP was bugging the phones of 15,745 people on national security grounds but won’t reveal the names nor reasons.
He battled with SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras as they tossed word bombs back and forth over surveillance after the Premier earlier said spying on citizens and others was necessary in some cases for the national interest.
Mitsotakis’ government though is the first in the European Union to draw up a measure to ban the sale of spyware although the company Intellexa that sells it has a headquarters in the Greek capital.
Under the draft legislation, the use, sale or distribution of spyware in Greece will carry a penalty of a two-year minimum prison sentence. Additional safeguards were also planned for legal wiretaps as well as for hiring the Director and deputy directors of EYP.
Speaking in Parliament Mitsotakis described the reforms as “a bold institutional response to a challenge that – and I want to emphasize this – does not only concern our country.”
Reports in the news media that multiple members of the cabinet as well as other senior officials and journalists may have been targeted with the spyware that can snoop on cell phone calls, stored contacts and data, and access devices’ microphones and cameras have prompted a judicial investigation.
In August, a top government aide and the EYP’s chief resigned following revelations that Nikos Androulakis, a Member of the European Parliament who later was elected head of the PASOK-KINAL Socialists, had his phone bugged by EYP.
The resignations were followed by weeks of newspaper reports that senior officials were being tracked using Predator spyware, which is similar to the more widely known Pegasus surveillance software, a version that can hack into a phone even if the user doesn’t click on a link as Predator requires.
The government insists its agencies have never used the spyware and Mitsotakis was briefly engaged in a verbal battle with a shipping oligarch over who was using it to track people and cull the data off their phones.
The use and alleged use of surveillance software in European Union member states is also the subject of an ongoing inquiry by a European Parliament committee, whose members visited Athens.
Facing elections before next summer, Mitsotakis’ center-right New Democracy party has seen its strong lead in opinions polls in recent weeks suffer as a result of the wiretapping allegations and the ongoing cost of living crisis.
Human Rights Watch described the proposed reforms as “problematic,” arguing the government had failed to consult with the country’s own independent watchdogs on privacy or include adequate human rights safeguards.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)