Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Monday 6/2/2006Yet more perplexing news from Greece, that country rich in history and intrigue yet poor in planespotters and videogame enthusiasts. The latest technoscandal is that person or persons unknown infiltrated Vodafone's mobile network in Athens and silently linked important peoples' mobiles to a bank of monitors.

Monday 6/2/2006

Yet more perplexing news from Greece, that country rich in history and intrigue yet poor in planespotters and videogame enthusiasts. The latest technoscandal is that person or persons unknown infiltrated Vodafone's mobile network in Athens and silently linked important peoples' mobiles to a bank of monitors. Calls to and from around a hundred people were sent to 14 pay as you go handsets – these people included the prime minister, the top level of the defence and public order ministries, some foreign ministry phones, one former minister now in opposition, antiwar and civil rights activists, Arabs, and even a US Embassy official.

Voda pointed the finger at Ericsson, whose monitoring software did the deed. That software had been installed by Voda but not properly activated – it was intended to be used for official investigations backed by court warrant, but the appropriate law had yet to be passed. Instead, says the operator, 'spyware' within the software opened a back door and kicked off the intercept. Ericsson hasn't said anything yet, as far as I can tell, and in the circumstances neither would I.

Meanwhile, there's been a hint from certain quarters that the Americans were involved, as the embassy was within range of the mobile phone cells used. The US has said pish and tush to that, as has the Greek government; as the Americans are habitually blamed for most things, we can probably discount this.

It hasn't helped that Voda Greece's top technical bod hung himself a couple of days after the scandal broke last year, in circumstances involving a mysterious note adorned with swastikas and a reference to the "Blood Donor". Nor has the task of investigation been made any easier by Voda's action in tearing out all the monitoring systems as soon as they were discovered rather than leaving them running and tracking down the perpetrators – and other evidence points to an inside job possibly involving the company and elements within the government. The prime minister's phone wasn't registered in his name, for starters, and only a handful of people knew the fake identity.

This is all top-notch spy movie fare, of a sort scandalously denied us since the Cold War. It shows that any illusion of security we may have concerning our mobile phones is a flimsy fantasy: mine now says "ASSUME THIS PHONE IS TAPPED" as its welcome message when I power it up. It also shows just how easy it is to bypass what look like legally and technically impervious safeguards, which is how car thieves in LA can continue to steal top of the line Lexuses with sophisticated cryptographically secure engine immobilisers (they rip open the bonnet and replace the immobiliser with a doctored unit) and why nobody with any sense thinks DRM will help the music industry, or a nationwide database for ID cards will make us more, rather than less, secure.

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