Is Italy next in line for NSA spying revelations?

As reports of NSA spying in Italy start to surface, the government and others have called for more clarity on just how far the country's communications are being monitored.
Written by Raffaele Mastrolonardo, Contributor

And, at last, it was Italy's turn. After France, Germany and Spain, even the Italian authorities eventually voiced their concerns over the US National Security Agency's (NSA) surveillance programs.

"It is unacceptable that there are shadow zones among allies," Italy's prime minister, Enrico Letta, said on Friday. Two days earlier, during a meeting with US secretary of state John Kerry in Rome, he talked of the "need to confirm the veracity of the reports" about "possible violations of privacy".

No major revelations regarding Italy have yet surfaced in the country's media based on files leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden, but the reports from France, Germany and the UK have been enough to raise concerns among the public.

After French newspaper Le Monde reported that the NSA had collected data on 70 million French phone calls between December 2012 and January 2013, Italy's Data Protection Authority was quick to call for more information.

Highlighting the "problem of NSA spying activities", the watchdog called on the government "to clarify whether the collection, use and storage of information about telephone and internet communications also included Italian citizens".

Interior minister and deputy PM Angelino Alfano also didn't pull his punches: "We have a duty to [provide] clarity for Italian citizens — we must obtain the whole truth and tell the whole truth," he said.

Whether the government's statements will be followed by action or will prove to be nothing more than lip service remains to be seen.

While the Italian media hasn't yet produced any major stories as big as those broken by other European news outlets, some details of the NSA's activity in the country have already emerged nonetheless.

According to figures provided by German news magazine Der Spiegel, metadata from 46 million Italian phone calls was collected over a 30-day period from December 2012 to January 2013. That's less than in Germany, France or Spain, but still a good load of data.

This detail tallies with reports by Italian magazine l'Espresso, which believes the files obtained by Snowden contain documents about the NSA's surveillance of  'the Boot'. According to the magazine, this has been confirmed by the NSA, which invited a delegation of Copasir, the parliament's intelligence supervisory committee, to visit the US at the beginning of October. During that visit, US officials told Italian MPs that such activities were carried out but were limited to people suspected of terrorism and with the knowledge of the Italian intelligence services.

L'Espresso also described how Tempora, the electronic surveillance program operated by the UK's GCHQ and revealed by Snowden, might have collected data from and about the country. By tapping submarine communications cables with landing points in Italy, UK intelligence services were able to gather (and pass on to the NSA) information about terrorism suspects.

There may be more to it than that, however: according to the magazine, the Snowden files show that Tempora has been used to collect information about "foreign governments' intentions" and therefore about Italy's strategic choices in fields like energy, trade and technology too.

For the experts the fact that Italy has also been extensively spied upon is a given. "It's all very simple: Italy is at the crossroad of communications exchanges in Europe and in the Mediterranean area. So it could have been spared by surveillance only if the NSA and GCHQ deliberately decided to do so. Which I think it's very unlikely," said Matteo Flora, co-founder of the Hermes Center for transparency and digital rights.

As for the reaction by Italian authorities, some think it has been slow, to say the least. "When the first news about NSA surveillance programs started to come out, the government opted for a wait-and-see approach," said Stefano Quintarelli, MP for the centrist movement Scelta Civica, who back in June filed a parliamentary question on the matter. "Now they've decided to follow in the footsteps of Germany and France, which is OK, because we need to raise awareness on these matters."

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