Nikos Smyrnaios is an Associate Professor at the University of Toulouse, France where he teaches theory, history, sociology and economics of the media and the internet.
In Europe, 80% of adults carry a smartphone. Among young people under the age of 30, this rate exceeds 90%. In many European countries, users spend, on average, more than three hours a day on smartphone applications. These digital tools, which are increasingly complex and ubiquitous, have become potential vectors for surveillance. This distributed system is now being exploited in Europe by a powerful military-industrial complex to spy on politicians, journalists, activists, business leaders and ordinary citizens, as the recent scandal in Greece shows.
How Mobile Phones Became Spies
Mobile phones were originally just phones. The only information that passed through them was interpersonal communication in spoken or text form. In order to “listen in” on them, one had to intercept these communications in real time through telecom networks or have “physical” access to the device. But since the advent of smartphones, mobile phones have become computers in their own right. The functionality makes these devices indispensable, but it also enables the collection and processing of a wealth of information about their users.
As a result, each device can continuously transmit information about its user – from location and the details of intimate conversations to contact networks and audio and video capture of the immediate environment. This information is collected by the manufacturers of the devices themselves, telecom operators, and the owners of operating systems and applications. But this use of a commercial nature is normally governed by specific regulations such as the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
However, like any computing device, smartphones have security vulnerabilities. Many vulnerabilities also exist in the telecommunication networks that carry the data to and from these devices. As a result, malicious actors can potentially gain unauthorized and remote access to sensitive information.
A Military-Industrial Complex of Surveillance
These technical loopholes are used by hackers to blackmail or sell data for profit. But they are also exploited on an industrial scale by well-known specialist service providers, whose global market is estimated to be worth $12 billion. In theory, the only possible use for these sophisticated spying devices, which violate the secrecy of communications, is in the fight against serious crime and terrorism. Therefore, the buyers are supposed to be limited to intelligence agencies and state security services.
For example, a European Parliament committee of inquiry into the Pegasus software learned that NSO, the Israeli company which manufactures it, has contracts in twelve EU countries with twenty-two security services. The committee’s inquiry followed an international journalistic investigation which, in July 2021, revealed that journalists, political opponents, human rights activists and politicians in some 20 countries had been spied on in this way. These countries include France, Spain, Poland, Hungary, Finland and the United Kingdom.
In fact, for some years now, a military-industrial complex has been developing in Europe, which associates companies from the surveillance software sector such as NSO – but also the Italian RCS Lab, the French Nexa and Intellexa, based in Greece – with state security services and a multitude of sulphureous intermediaries. At the heart of this complex, which is backed by powerful political and financial interests, are figures such as Tal Dilian, an Israeli army veteran who headed its cyberwarfare unit before co-founding Intellexa, a consortium that includes, in addition to France’s Nexa (formerly Amesys, which in 2011 sold surveillance technology to deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s regime), WiSpear, Cytrox and Senpai. These companies are controlled by Israeli investors but are based in Southern and Eastern Europe (Greece, Cyprus, Northern Macedonia, Hungary and Bulgaria), seemingly to take advantage of the lack of regulation, the low cost of specialized labor force and the tolerance of the authorities.
The Predator software marketed by Intellexa, with functions equivalent to Pegasus, was at the heart of the recent scandal in Greece. The press revealed that an opposition politician and MEP had been spied on, as well as a journalist who was investigating the privileges the Greek government gives to the country’s wealthy. The authorities cited the defense of “national interests” to justify the spying by the secret services, but denied the use of Predator.
In this case, as in similar cases in France, Hungary and Poland, behind these violations of liberty and anti-democratic practices is a tangle of economic and political interests, an informal system that could be described as a “public-private partnership” used to spy on and eventually neutralize those who get in the way. The secret services subcontract espionage to technology companies that work for businessmen and multinationals at the same time. Counter-espionage and crime-fighting, industrial espionage, economic intelligence and the repression of political opponents thus intertwine outside any control or regulatory framework.
A Drift Fueled by a Favorable Conjuncture
The rise of this military-industrial surveillance complex in Europe is the result of several factors. The first factor is user addiction to smartphones, but also the growing dependence on the products of digital multinationals such as Meta (Facebook), Alphabet (Google), Microsoft, Amazon and Apple. This hyper-concentration greatly facilitates espionage on an industrial scale: by exploiting their flaws, a malicious actor can affect any individual in the world equipped with a smartphone.
The other factor is the hardening of the political context: intensification of international geopolitical competition and multiplication of armed conflicts; increase in police repression of social movements in Europe; concentration of wealth, widening inequalities and endemic corruption; climate, energy and migration crisis. These conditions favor the rise to power of parties in Europe which- as in Hungary, Poland and Greece- do not hesitate to trample on the rule of law, promote a reactionary ideology and compromise themselves for the benefit of business interests. It is no coincidence that the majority of victims of political espionage are left-wing activists, human rights and civil liberties defenders and anti-corruption journalists.
Finally, the European Union is a breeding ground for political espionage because of the lack of regulation and the very disparate situations among the member countries. For example, while the U.S. Department of Commerce blacklisted NSO Group in 2021 for activities “contrary to national security” and for enabling authoritarian governments to suppress dissent, in Europe no such action has yet been taken. However, it is urgent to control this market and to strictly and transparently regulate the use of these systems in specific cases of defense of the general interest. It is also important to reduce our dependence on digital tools that are entirely controlled by Big Tech. In this respect, the EU’s Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act go in the right direction, but it is also important to work on education and political awareness of the dangers of monopolistic control over our digital lives.
Nikos Smyrnaios is an Associate Professor at the University of Toulouse, France where he teaches theory, history, sociology and economics of the media and the internet. He has published numerous articles in peer-reviewed journals and book chapters in English, French and Greek and has presented at international conferences on the political economy of communication, digital journalism and the political use of social media. He is the author of Internet Oligopoly: The Corporate Takeover of Our Digital World, Emerald, 2018