(CN) — Is the telegenic, Harvard-educated gentleman politician from Athens who “speaks Davos,” as the Economist magazine said of Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, also the man overseeing a wide-scale, abusive and illegal regime of domestic spying?
The “Greek Watergate,” as the scandal engulfing the prime minister and his government has been dubbed, is leaving a glaring hole in Mitsotakis' sunny assurances he's the steady-handed financial and political savior of Greece, the debt-burdened “sick man of Europe.”
As scandals go, this Watergate-like case of alleged government corruption and abuse of power is a slow-drip affair: For the past year, each month has brought to light more evidence of Mitsotakis' likely knowledge and possible involvement in the surveillance of opposition politicians, journalists, government ministers, military officers, allies, prosecutors and others.
“Mitsotakis was very keen to project a new image of Greece: liberal, progressive,” said Wolfango Piccoli, an analyst with Teneo, a London-based political risk firm. “It did him well until this scandal exploded.”
It's a complex and murky political story ripened from this new age of Big Data and the nightmare of governments turning into dreaded Big Brothers.
The first inklings of the spying scandal stirred in December 2021 when Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto high-tech expert group, issued a report about its discovery of a novel spyware known as Predator.
Spyware – software that hacks into smartphones and computers – is a booming and often nefarious industry at the nexus of big money, politics, technology and intelligence agencies. Military-grade digital espionage tools are now routinely purchased and used by governments, such as was the alleged case in Greece.
“It is a major scandal which speaks to bigger questions such as democratic backsliding in Europe,” said Myrto Tsakatika, a politics professor and expert on Greece at the University of Glasgow. “This is a test for Greek democracy.”
Following Citizen Lab's report, Greek investigative reporters dug deeper and began to reveal a dirty open secret: The European Union, and in particular Greece and its balmy Mediterranean neighbors Cyprus and Malta, have become havens for a flourishing, largely unregulated and legally dubious spyware industry. Predator, like other spyware programs, has links to technology developed by Israeli secret services.
The spying furor turned dramatic and public in early April 2022 when Thanasis Koukakis, a business investigative journalist and editor for CNN Greece, announced his Apple smartphone was hacked by Predator. The revelation came after Citizen Lab diagnosed his phone and found it had been infected by Predator in 2021. Later, Koukakis discovered the spyware hack was mirrored by government-approved wiretapping of his phone by Greece's National Intelligence Service, or EYP. The EYP was set up with the help of the United States after World War II and modeled on the Central Intelligence Agency.
The scandal widened still further and morphed from a spying scandal against pesky journalists to leaks about government-sanctioned wiretap surveillance and alleged spyware attacks on opposition politicians.
The EYP was given the green light by prosecutors to wiretap Nikos Androulakis, the leader of PASOK, Greece's longtime center-left party and rival to New Democracy. PASOK and New Democracy have dominated Greek politics since the end of Greece's military dictatorship between 1967 and 1974.
Last August, Mitsotakis was forced to admit that the EYP had indeed wiretapped Androulakis' phone, but he denied any knowledge of the spying. He also strenuously denied allegations that Greece was deploying spyware.
In an effort to nip the scandal in the bud, Mitsotakis got rid of his EYP chief, Panagiotis Kontoleon, and sacked his nephew, Grigoris Dimitriadis. He'd appointed Dimitriadis as his general secretary and liaison to the EYP. In December, his government also banned the use of spyware by private individuals, though the legislation did not bar the government from using it.