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Columnists

We’ll Be Listening to You – We Are Tracking Your Cell Phone

It’s unlikely it will be revealed – or more likely covered up – who tried to put Predator spyware on the cell phone of Member of the European Parliament Nikos Androulakis, also head of the resurging PASOK-KINAL center-left party in Greece.

It’s known that the National Intelligence Service (EYP), which should spend its time looking for real spies during a time of Turkish threats, installed it on the phone of journalist Thanasis Koukakis, who covers financial news.

EYP’s chief said it was “legal” and “in the national interest,” the chestnut that governments roll out to cover up what they’re really doing and why they want to hide it from the public, but there’s no national interest in tracking a reporter.

There is self-interest of course, from governments, agencies wanting to snoop on an entire populace, or rich business executives who have the money to buy the spyware that’s otherwise prohibitively expensive, and have enough left over to put SLAPP suits on journalists trying to silence them.

So someone’s got some ‘splainin’ to do here and it doesn’t look good. Koukakis told the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York that researchers at Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto – the best in the business – said his phone was infected when he innocently clicked on a link.

He said he noticed his phone acting strangely in 2020 and suspected spyware and filed a complaint with the Hellenic Authority for Communication Security and Privacy, which later said it did not find any evidence of a breach of privacy on his phone – although there was.

There’s no apparent motive for tracking him, and New Democracy government spokesman Giannis Oikonomou, another cardboard cutout in that position, denied the administration had anything to do with it, while Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said he wants some answers.

If it turns out that it was EYP or any government agency or person who went after Androulakis’ phone a few months before he was elected leader of the new center-left morphed party in December, 2021, then someone has to pay.

Third in polls but doubling its popularity since he took over, PASOK-KINAL could be a kingmaker in 2023 elections where there won’t be an outright winner because the former ruling SYRIZA removed a 50-seat bonus for the winning party.

“Revealing who’s behind these appalling practices and who they are acting for isn’t a personal matter; it’s a democratic duty,” Androulakis said after filing a suit, The New York Times said.

“Governments are buying this stuff, and it’s very, very difficult for them to resist the temptation to use it for political purposes,” Sophia in ’t Veld, a senior member of the European Parliament overseeing spyware probes told The Times.

Spyware allows hackers to capture a target’s phone and all the data and information – which could compromise whistleblowers and journalist’s sources – including calls, messages, photos, and video, and it’s a short hop between surveiling politicians and journalists and every citizen in a country.

Cell phones, said Chris Pratt’s character in The Terminal List, are tracking devices, and he warned a journalist to use a protected phone because, “WhatsApp was compromised a long time ago.”

A December 2021 report by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab found out that Cytrox, which was founded in 2017 and based in North Macedonia, is selling the Predator spyware to governments.

Cytrox was acquired for $5 million in 2018 by the Intellexa Group founded by Israeli businessman Tal Dilian who was operating in Cyprus where an alleged spy truck was found, prompting him to leave there and move his company’s headquarters to Athens, rather in a hurry.

Three years ago, Dilian boasted to Forbes magazine that no one was safe from spyware. Predator requires a person to click on a link but the more sophisticated Pegasus doesn’t, and Dilian set up an experiment to show how vulnerable everyone is. A target holding a phone was 200 yards away when his special spy truck locked on.

“We will trace them, we will intercept them, and we will infect them,” Dilian said ominously. It wasn’t a movie line but reality.

Within seconds, the phone was hacked and supposedly-safe WhatsApp messages appeared on a monitor right in front of him – or police or national intelligence agencies who use it – and they will have your life in their hands.

If your cell phone isn’t protected with an anti-viral, anti-ransomware program like Bitdefender, doesn’t use encrypted email and uncrackable VPN’s like Proton from Switzerland, encrypted text messaging systems like Signal and browsers like DuckDuck Go or Ixquick, you’re begging to be hacked.

But all that defense is useless if you click on a text message or open an email and attachment from someone you don’t know or trust because – voila! – your phone could then controlled by vampire spyware like Predator or Pegasus.

The hacking tool gives access to your mobile device, including passwords, files, photos, browsing history, and identity data, and can take screen captures, record user input, and activate the camera and microphone.

The Androulakis case could be the tipping point for digital rights, but if it’s not found who did it, the suspicion will fall on a government agency, so Mitsotakis must find out who did it. It’s just a click away.

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