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Mobile Phones of Greek PM, Government tapped
February 2, 2006 10:19 AM   Subscribe

The Greek government has just admitted that unknown parties have been tapping the mobile phones of the Prime Minister, government ministers, military and police officials and others. Details are still a bit sketchy, but it looks like someone installed a stealth redirecting software in the routers of Vodafone Greece --which has admitted to discovering the taps in March of 05.
posted by costas (37 comments total)

 
No clue why Reuters has classified this as "Oddly Enough" (sorry, no better English-language links at this point). Some more details: tapping started at some point before the Athens Olympics and ended upon discovery (when stupidly, Vodafone and Ericsson disabled the taps, tipping off their hand).
posted by costas at 10:22 AM on February 2, 2006


the seventeenth of november lives on?
posted by phaedon at 10:25 AM on February 2, 2006


Why can't some spy ring just set up some receivers around Athens and have some computers decoding the datastreams? Seems a lot less risky than this kind of thing.
posted by chef_boyardee at 10:25 AM on February 2, 2006


Bush just asserted his right to go greek without giving notice.
posted by tzelig at 10:26 AM on February 2, 2006


This has to be a gov't tap. Anybody who can get unauthorized software running on a major telco's switch is operating with a completely different level of technical kung-fu.
posted by bhance at 10:36 AM on February 2, 2006


This sounds like the setup for a Yakov Smirnoff joke
posted by b1tr0t at 10:37 AM on February 2, 2006


Wonder who?

Give me a "N!"
posted by eriko at 10:40 AM on February 2, 2006


Why can't some spy ring just set up some receivers around Athens and have some computers decoding the datastreams? Seems a lot less risky than this kind of thing.

56-bit DES crypto is strong enough to prevent mass-taps like that. Unless you're the NSA.
posted by delmoi at 10:41 AM on February 2, 2006


GIMME AN "S"
posted by stenseng at 10:43 AM on February 2, 2006


Okay, I'll bite: "Gimme an A!"
posted by BigLankyBastard at 10:44 AM on February 2, 2006


"What's that spell?"



"We're all fucked!"
posted by stenseng at 10:47 AM on February 2, 2006


Of course it's a government-sponsored intrusion. The question is, which one? While our (USA's) very own NSA (official motto: "We sprinkle 128-bit encryption on our oatmeal. Beeyotch!") is an obvious suspect, one must also consider the idea that it may be Turkey, or even our cousins across the pond at MI-6.
posted by BigLankyBastard at 10:48 AM on February 2, 2006


I don't think it was the NSA. Why would the NSA go through the trouble of actually tapping phones? Why would they tap the phone of any particular individual?
posted by delmoi at 10:49 AM on February 2, 2006


Well, some more fuel for conspiracy theorists, and I have to point out that Greek media is about as yellow as they get: they say that the names in this list of about 100 people whose cells were tapped also included leftist activists, Muslims and a staff member of the US Embassy (probably some are diversions). Also, that triangulation (? more likely cell tower records) of the 14 "receiver" SIMs that were used to tap the "target" phones point to an area in central Athens thick with embassies (yes, including the massive US embassy) and corporate HQs. The tap was apparently discovered in a routine debugging check of the Ericsson software in question.

My own €0.02: a competent government agency (much less the big American ones) can do a much better job than this. This is either a botched second-class gov't job (i.e. Greece, Turkey or someone around here) or massive industrial espionage.
posted by costas at 10:50 AM on February 2, 2006


When I was vacationing in Athens 12 or 14 years ago, the N-17 blew up a cabinet minister with a missile just one block from my hotel - early in the AM, I'm lying in bed having a cup of coffee, and all of a sudden the entire building shakes and there's plaster everywhere. Apparently they shot some kind of missile from the roof of one building down onto the street. Hopefully, that's as physically close to terrorism as I'll ever get.
posted by luriete at 10:53 AM on February 2, 2006


56-bit DES crypto is strong enough to prevent mass-taps like that.
Holy cripes, I wasn't aware that telcos bothered encrypting cell phone conversations. I guess I'll go make some lewd calls.
posted by chef_boyardee at 10:57 AM on February 2, 2006


Costas, I agree at least partially. To me, the most likely suspect would be Turkey. Though just because it was a second-rate hack job doesn't mean it wasn't American, though that likely rules out the NSA. Remember the CIA's recent cockup in Italy? It might be them, or someone at DIA getting ambitious.
But my vote is, it's Turkey - they have both the interest and the lack of resources necessary to try something like this.
posted by BigLankyBastard at 10:58 AM on February 2, 2006


BigLankyBastard - it's not MI6 (or SIS) it's GCHQ.
posted by longbaugh at 10:59 AM on February 2, 2006


So does that remove the NSA from the list of suspects? What about Russia, China, Israel, the UK or other nations with well-funded and established espionage units?
posted by tweak at 11:06 AM on February 2, 2006


This has to be a gov't tap. Anybody who can get unauthorized software running on a major telco's switch is operating with a completely different level of technical kung-fu.

Of course it is. Built-in to every telephone exchange in the world is something called Lawful Interception - literally a tap that law enforcement agencies can use to listen in to any traffic passing through the switch.
posted by three blind mice at 11:08 AM on February 2, 2006


"As soon as we discovered the phone tapping software, we removed it and informed the state, as was our obligation," Koronias said in a statement.

But the shutdown of the illegal software in the Vodafone system wiped out all traces of how and from where it had been installed, Public Order Minister George Voulgarakis told the news conference.


This I'm not buying. I can't believe that anyone with an ounce of sense would not try to trace the IP traffic - or at least back-up the critical files - before taking an action that would wipe all traces clean. It also seems a little too convenient of an excuse.
posted by three blind mice at 11:18 AM on February 2, 2006


WHy so quick to not blame USA agency? just because it was done stupidly doesnt seem to be a reason anymore.
posted by Iax at 11:32 AM on February 2, 2006


You do realise that whoever did this (especialy is NSA) now has costas/all of us on file.
posted by Suparnova at 11:47 AM on February 2, 2006


What would the US or other states (excluding Turkey) have to grain from bugging the Greek PM? I'd love some juicy context.
posted by moonbird at 11:48 AM on February 2, 2006


IP traffic? On mobiles?
posted by dash_slot- at 11:50 AM on February 2, 2006


I know just a little bit about GSM: true, all GSM traffic is encrypted but they have been several exploits. In any case, it's easier to hack into the routers/controllers than to eavesdrop over-the-air. As for dash_slot's question: most of the big routers handling cell calls on the back-end are just customized computers, and yes they can have IP traffic coming in/out (for maintainance mostly I think).

What I don't get is why go public with this? apparently only a few people within Vodafone were aware of the discovery, and the whole counter-intelligence op was botched beyond belief --again, apparently the poor Vodafone engineers are the ones to blame here; they purged the software instead of just contacting the government and let them... play with it. So, the government basically came out saying "someone was eavesdropping on the PM and his wife, and most of the Cabinet and Chiefs of Staff, but we don't know who". Unless they knew there was a media report about to come out, this doesn't make much sense...
posted by costas at 12:02 PM on February 2, 2006


The illuminati are getting sloppy.
posted by TwelveTwo at 12:08 PM on February 2, 2006


dash_slot- writes "IP traffic? On mobiles?"

Traffic between switches is packet switched.
posted by Mitheral at 12:10 PM on February 2, 2006


>>Why can't some spy ring just set up some receivers around Athens

Okay, that's a tough nut to crack. Athens has 750,000 people in a relatively small area. Its a populous dense city which translates into lots of GSM towers. This kind of mass snooping would require a significant amount of obvious gear (hey whats with all those vans everywhere). You would have to place a receiver in every cell.

Storing all that data would be tremendous problem. You really couldn't disregard any of it as you wouldn't know what the good stuff was until after you unencrypted it. GSM uses an encryption scheme called A5 which has a 54-bit key length.

You can crack A5, but the one crack I've read about requires 32 gigabytes of data. And that's per phone!

This is why mass-snooping is not usually worth it. Targeting where the cell phones meet the PSTN network makes sense as you can be a lot more selective about the data you collect. Of course this is an inside operation. You just can't place a tap on a wire outside the building or anything.

November 17 is a very small (25 people?) terrorist group in Greece and I doubt they could pull this off, and if they did why would they? Sounds like this is one of those dirty little Olympic secrets. I wonder how many intelligence services had access to these taps during the Olympics. I can't imagine the Greek government saying no to the CIA or the Mossad so soon after 9/11. Greece being the birthplace of the Western world (and home to one US military base) would make a very attractive target for Islamic terrorists.
posted by skallas at 12:19 PM on February 2, 2006


Given that this story involves spies (or at the least, spying), I would presume that we are not getting accurate or complete information.

Routine De-bugging? Who does routine De-bugging?
posted by Richard Daly at 12:24 PM on February 2, 2006


skallas: FYI, Athens has a lot more than 750,000 ppl (metro area is roughly 4M, within a radious of ~10-15 miles tops). Also, 17N has been (mostly) disbanded: police arrested roughly 15 ppl or so a couple of years ago. Although most Greeks believe there are more on the loose, the old-school leftist terrorist groups have been mostly broken up. You still have the occasional anti-establishment kids explode a pipe bomb or something but nothing as dramatic as the stunts 17N pulled off --raiding police barracks, army bases, shooting at armored cars with remote-controlled RPGs, the list goes on...
posted by costas at 12:25 PM on February 2, 2006


Turkey is the most obvious suspect, of course, but one should not rule out Britain or some homegrown free-lancer. Weren't Greek politics notoriously underhanded? If the wiretaps started just months before the Athens Olympics, that was just about the time of the last general election...
posted by Skeptic at 1:45 PM on February 2, 2006


Listen, there are many parts of this story that don't make sense:

First of all the list. It includes the PM, cabinet members, Stavros Dimas EU Environment commissioner, then only one member of the Socialist opposition the former defense minister, no members of the parliamentary leftist greek parties, the Mayor of Athens, the phones of a company belonging to the PMs family, one US embassy phone number, a relatively known anti-authoriarian leftist lawyer, a lot of Greek folks I never heard about (including apparently a journalist specializing in economic affairs), allegedly (I haven't cross checked this) Al Jazeera's correspondent in Athens and 11 apparently muslim names. Say what?

These muslim names (and by that I mean possibly Pakistani, I don't know yet) of apparently "nobodies", would suggest that the people bugging the phones would have a special interest in muslim immigrants. Given that around that time, we know for a fact that not only the Greek police but "foreign secret services" were very busy harassing perfectly law-abiding muslim immigrants in Greece, this might suggest who would be interested in bugging muslim immigrants. It ain't Turkey. Greek blogger Roman, has an illustrated suggestion. This is the relevant image:



Inside the triangle I can think of no other major embassy or government building. But again not all of the list makes sense as US surveillance subjects.

Then there is the fact as three blind mice notes that the company's behavior is surreal: faced with the tapping of the whole Greek government they proceed to wipe out any trace of the software responsible and any lead to who could have done it. Either they're covering up some huge security hole in their network, or they did it with the knowledge of the Greek government, or they are idiots.

Finally, why did it take 11 months for this to come out. What exactly was being investigated.

As for why they publicized this: if it leaked - and it would, sooner or later - the government would become one of the accused for unlawfully hiding it.

Another possibilty that's not quite out of the question: Greek Secret Service people, freelancing or playing some sort of political game.
posted by talos at 4:05 PM on February 2, 2006


Oh BTW, Vodafone apparently claims that they found the software while investigating why some SMS messages weren't reaching their recipients. And the two other major mobile companies in Greece are partying hard as we speak.

Some more info: the list includes Arab businessmen, human rights activists, anarchists and military officers in charge of army procurements. Sheesh if it ain't CIA, it's someone that's trying hard to make it look as if it was CIA.

Also note that November 17 is no longer in existence, as a number of its members (and possibly some non-members as well, but that's another story) were arrested and convicted a couple of years ago.
posted by talos at 4:29 PM on February 2, 2006


>>Athens has a lot more than 750,000 ppl

Not, actually it has less. If you want to say Athens and all of its surrounding metro area including towns and areas not named Athens adds up to 4 mill, then fine, but that's not exactly true. The metro logic means Chicago suddenly has 8 million people when you count the surrounding suburbs. It actually has a population of about 3 million.

I don't know why people feel the need to inflate population numbers this way. Was there a contest I wasn't told about? Where do I collect my "A for Effort" t-shirt?
posted by skallas at 11:00 PM on February 2, 2006


Skallas: population numbers are so 'inflated' to reflect reality. The poster who corrected the population numbers said "metro area". Official city populations are deceptive as cities are geographically defined. The real world is more about entire metropolitan areas.
posted by Goofyy at 3:23 AM on February 3, 2006


The Observer today are reporting on the suicide of Vodafone Greece's network planning manager. Described as someone who 'had no health problems, was about to marry and was doing very well at work', he hung himself the day after the tapping was uncovered - and before it was reported.
posted by reynir at 12:36 AM on February 5, 2006


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