Jan 21, 2013
Despite budgeting restrictions due to Greece’s ongoing financial crisis, the country’s major state security agencies responsible for monitoring and surveillance operations are continuing to upgrade their technological capabilities, ostensibly for the fight against terrorism, organized crime and corruption. This trend started around a decade ago and has primarily benefited the National Intelligence Service (NIS), Police State Security Directorate (DIKA) and Police-Anti-terrorist Directorate (DAEEB), boosting the real-time monitoring capacities of each.
These upgrades are coming at a time of increasing volatility and violence attributed to both far-right and far-left elements dissatisfied with the government and its foreign-ordered austerity measures. In an article on yesterday’s bomb blast at an Athens shopping mall, Reuters reported that the incident signified a “worrying escalation in political violence” that also included a recent Kalashnikov attack on the party headquarters of the ruling Nea Dimokratia party. According to the wire service, Greek police have turned first to surveillance video to try and identify any suspect in the bombing.
Although some Greeks regard the increase in security monitoring as excessive, it is apparent that the country could not sustain itself in terms of domestic security without a monitoring apparatus of significant size and capacity. In addition to keeping tabs on occasionally hostile neighbors, there are a plethora of visiting persons and groups of interest, including foreign diplomats, members of Eastern European criminal gangs, a huge illegal immigrant population which includes radical Islamist figures, left- and right-wing extremists and so on to be monitored. In addition, the deteriorating economic and social situation has led also to widespread monitoring of a wider spectrum of Greek society due to governmental anxiety over protests and potentially deadly attacks- as was witnessed in yesterday’s bomb attack.
Note on Sources and Limitations
The present article draws on a combination of recent interviews with Greek police officers, intelligence officers, political figures, attorneys in criminal cases, Greek journalists and academics who are specialized in the field, as well as reliable open sources including certain media reports and transcripts from Greek court trials regarding terrorism and organized crime cases.
Still, it has to be said that in the murky world of intelligence-gathering, nobody can be really sure of what exactly is going on. Indeed, while certain persons in Greece claim to be ‘intelligence experts,’ and even open quasi-institutions on this theme, in reality nobody can speak with certainty on the inner workings of the Greek intelligence system.
Although Greece is a medium-sized European country, it has over time amassed a plethora of intelligence-gathering authorities, which can be considered Byzantine in both their practices and excessive bureaucracy. The vagaries of political influence, the combination of a sizeable number of lingering ‘old guard’ officials and the imperative for utilization of cutting-edge technology makes any kind of assessment vague and somewhat subjective. It takes decades of careful observation, along with a distinct knowledge of Greek culture and history, for one to understand how the whole system works and, most importantly, to comprehend the underlying motives behind the associated intelligence organizations.
For the time being, the classic paradox remains: the real specialists will not comment publicly, while those who do are most certainly not real experts. Nevertheless, this article strives to present the most credible information currently available on the current state of affairs.
Like other people in the region, Greeks are prone to suspicion and even paranoia about police activities, so they will no doubt be disturbed to know that according to estimates approximately 3,000 persons in Greece are being wiretapped on an hourly basis by the security authorities. Among other things, the intelligence services have identified and target specific ‘red alert’ geographical zones. These are areas (mostly in Athens, but also elsewhere) in which criminal activity often occurs.
When a suspected criminal is traveling through or staying in these zones, the system may notify Humint assets in the vicinity to start shadowing the target. A known software system provider used by Greek authorities is the American company i2, now owned and managed by IBM.
“Systems like i2 and lots of other software can identify not just the social network of any suspect, but combined with telephone wiretapping they can also map out their activity in real-time,” a Greek security official attests for Balkanalysis.com. “At least 20 high-profile criminal cases have been uncovered using such methods over the past few years.”
The i2 system and similar ones operate by inputting into the software any data available about the targets being monitored. Names, locations, travels, contacts, communications and so on are all combined to produce unique profiles. Profiling work that once would have taken dozens of police detectives days or even weeks to compile is now thus being done in an instant.
According to this and other sources, the Greek telecom wiring systems have the capacity to simultaneously tap approximately 1000 landlines, 1000 mobile phone numbers and 1000 internet connections. What is also interesting is that each target is monitored almost round-the-clock. The system informs mobile HUMINT teams located across the country and they can decide to take action if necessary.
The Greek weekly newspaper To Vima recently published an overview of the Greek security agencies’ operational capabilities and estimated that these bodies process an average of 10 GB of digital information per day on such activities. This amount can increase tenfold in case of emergencies.
The technological architecture could be described as “Echelon type one” since it is backed by a glossary of key words and phrases and with a steady upload of voice recognition capabilities. The risk of counter-surveillance by the targets themselves is non-existent, since all of the telecom companies operating in Greece are required to have a ‘back door’ for lawful interception of traffic. Once judicial authorization is provided, monitoring starts automatically, leaving no trace. This was required by a law voted on in 2008, but was also being applied unofficially even before the 2004 Olympic Games.
In addition, specially outfitted vans and other vehicles throughout the country (and especially Athens), carry out smaller-scale surveillance operations, with the capability to cover a few hundred meters and a dozen or so telecom lines, according to the report.
Further Background on Upgrade Process and System Threats
A list of the types of systems used by Greek authorities, and companies who make them, was given in a previous Balkanalysis.com article back in September 2011. All equipment mentioned therein was procured in batches. Items purchased between 2002-2004 came due to the need to safeguard the Olympic Games, and were overseen by then-Minister of Public Order Michalis Chryssohoidis and then-NIS Head Pavlos Apostolidis). Equipment ordered for 2007-2008 (when the new legislation came into force) was overseen by then-Minister of Interior Prokopis Pavlopoulos and then-NIS Head Yiannis Korantis. Finally, during 2010-2011 new equipment was ordered to modernize the system by then-Minister for Public Order Chryssohoidis and the then-NIS Head Konstandinos Bikas.
One should also keep in mind that looming behind the whole initiative are several major related potential threats. First is the possibility that sensitive information regarding individuals being monitored could be leaked. Similarly there is the possibility of blackmail through illegal dissemination of such information or illegal use of equipment by a group of corrupted officers, for example. Another issue is the length-of-storage period, according to law, two years at a maximum. In reality, however, no one can guarantee that digitalized information could not be stored indefinitely.
Finally, the cyber-warfare element is important because if there is an attack against the servers where information is being continuously saved, then a huge load of data could easily be stolen remotely, and used as a commodity or intelligence tool by hostile parties. NIS is “CERT Classified” by NATO, meaning that it has cyber-defense capabilities. Still, in today’s world, hackers have successfully attacked some of the most secure business and governmental sites in the world, so safety of NIS data is hardly guaranteed.
The surveillance agent’s job does not have the glamour of a James-Bond style movie. In the modern Greek security structure, as in most European countries, such an officer sits at a specially designed desktop, which is outfitted with hardware connected to various servers, and stays there for the usual eight-hour shift.
After being briefed on qualitative terms regarding the target involved (who, what, how, why) he might then sit back sipping his Nescafe frappe, waiting for a potential conversation to pop up. Once it does, the most interesting bits are immediately saved. In cases that take priority, a last-minute report might be written and dispatched, if the information suggests immediate criminal action is expected.
Telephone Registration Law Aids Security Agencies
Here it is essential to note that since 2008, all mobile phones in Greece have to be registered to an owner, and that owner must provide a physical address. Previously it had been fine to buy a SIM card with no registration, which was also the case in other regional countries like Bulgaria (which now requires a passport number for foreigners, though not an address, in order to buy a SIM card).
This prohibitive Greek legislation has thus made the work rather easier for surveillance officers who have a much better chance of ascertaining in real time who’s talking to whom. Of course, criminals and others with reasons to evade the law are not naïve and have adapted their communications strategies. For example, they may speak through code words/names, use phones registered to different persons, register SIM cards to ‘dummy’ addresses and so on. Nevertheless, the registration restriction has benefited the police in general.
Traveling with a ‘Suitcase’
A common surveillance tool used by Greek authorities is the so-called ‘Suitcase’ portable monitoring device (the nickname derives from its being concealed, in fact, in a suitcase). This device is capable of monitoring a smaller number of suspects in an inconspicuous manner. However, it must be noted that equipment like this is increasingly found in the hands of individuals across the world- making monitoring a sport useful to anyone with a big wallet and vested interests. It is also very useful for the training of ‘rookies’ in the espionage world since it requires moving around and learning to be more adaptive, before taking up a desk position.
Division of Labor
The NIS chiefly uses its monitoring capabilities in pursuing the actions of foreign agents on Greek soil, while placing its own assets abroad, particularly, in the region between the Danube River and the Levantine Basin, and the Black Sea and Adriatic Sea. Thus its monitoring actions have a greater depth and are associated with a strategic vision, not solely concentrated on police-type work.
Profiling of foreign leaders or VIP’s is considered crucial by the NIS. So too are long-term research projects developed in order to profile opposing organizations and their structures. Unlike the case in many other countries, the NIS has responsibilities for both foreign intelligence and domestic counterintelligence, making the agency very powerful. The people responsible and vetted for monitoring are estimated to be few, perhaps not more than three percent of the entire workforce. This compartmentalization is done in order to diminish leaks, even within the agency itself.
The Greek Police’s State Security Division is most famous for its highly detailed and analytical surveillance work based on HUMINT assets- it has historically not been oriented so much towards relying on technological capabilities. In most respects it adheres to the ‘Old School’ type of monitoring, with a particular focus on groups of people suspected of anti-state action such as hard-line and far-left and far-right groups and criminals associated with political figures.
However, it also has a mandate for the oversight of the other agencies in case of infiltration by enemy interests, so in this respect it has a counterintelligence dimension, having some aspects in common with the UK’s Special Branch. Estimating the percentage of officers associated with technological monitoring is difficult in this case; however, it is widely believed that a majority of involved personnel in the Division are occupied day-to-day with ‘tailing suspects.’
The Police Anti-terrorist Division has traditionally received the greatest attention from Greek politicians, due to its critical role in combating domestic terrorism. In the past, as with the infamous November 17 terrorist group, well-organized plots have cost the lives of politicians, foreign diplomats, businesspeople and other notable figures.
Therefore, the Anti-terrorist Division has always enjoyed access to high-end technological means and a substantial budget, estimated at several million euros annually. It has by far the largest percentage of officers capable of using the kinds of complex software described previously. The vast majority of its officers have passed specialized seminars abroad, mostly in EU countries, the US and Israel. In fact, court transcripts and media reports indicate that all of the domestic terrorism cases solved over the past five years (which led to the arrests of some 40 people) had a distinct technological ‘flavor’ to the investigations in question.
Mobile Command Units
Mobile Command Units (MCUs) are specially designed and outfitted minivans or similar automobiles used to tail a suspect, both through physical shadowing and with a software monitoring unit intercepting the target’s telephone calls and contacts. Inside the vehicle are also kept additional items such as micro-sensors, micro-cameras, long-range cameras, satellite links, night vision goggles, weapons and even medical supplies.
When active, MCUs are staffed by a small group of agents who are prepared even for combat in case of emergency. A Greek intelligence insider states for Balkanalysis.com that there are up to 10 vehicles of this type roaming around Athens and other major cities in Greece, especially during significant events such as political rallies, elections, global conferences, visits of foreign leaders, protests and other signs of domestic political crisis and so on. The purpose is to add flexibility to the technological security architecture and assist the police in case of emergency situations.
In most cases, activated MCUs are accompanied by two other unmarked vehicles or motorbikes, which stay at a close distance in order to protect the team involved. MCUs offer real-time situational awareness to the headquarters of the Police and the NIS in Athens, through coded satellite transmissions with a range of up to 500 km- in effect, covering much of Greek territory.
Another interesting aspect of MCU capabilities is that through long-range cameras they can safely monitor and film at distances of up to 10 km away, depending on weather conditions. This means that in a geographical environment such as Greece’s, dotted by numerous islands and islets, an MCU can safely monitor suspicious activity taking place for example, on a ship out at sea.
Open Source Intelligence Center
One of the first priorities back in the late 1990’s, when Greece’s security and intelligence forces were preparing for the 2004 Olympic Games, was to create an OSINT surveillance center that would continuously gather a full stream of information from TV, the press, radio, and internet broadcasting. Since then the progress of technology has made it possible to literally monitor and distil in real time millions of media outlets in hundreds of languages across the planet and create alerts for attention.
For instance, comments made by foreign leaders and officials about a particular subject of interest, when increasing in level (though unnoticed to many) alerts the service that an initiative is moving towards implementation by a foreign entity, and a report is thus sent to the political leadership alerting them of this. On a police level, this aspect of OSINT software combined with surveillance, could perhaps pinpoint the future intentions of a criminal or terrorist group, based on reversed crowd sourcing techniques.
An Overabundance of Information
These significant technological upgrades by the Greek intelligence and security agencies have also generated an ever-increasing mass of data to be analyzed. This incurs the need to invest yet more manpower and capital to follow the emerging trends. It has also increased the expectations of Greek executive and governmental figures who already consider it normal that a tremendous workload involving targets and their contacts has to be monitored on a daily basis, regardless of the possibility that this may limit a more qualitative approach.
Moreover, the need is increasingly being voiced in Greek intelligence circles to create ‘stove pipes’ within the system, and to proliferate agencies dealing with technological surveillance in the Greek intelligence community (as described above), as well as in the military and the rest of the state apparatus, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Prime Minister’s office, the Coast Guard and the rest of the police forces. Last but not least (considering the government’s newfound interest in taxation) this also applies to the special state tax service.
Another dimension of all this is that, as everywhere else, Greece’s tradition of HUMINT is being contested by tech-wiz officials who prefer to target all information available from the tip of their mouse pad. The contrast and change has been noted around the world’s intelligence agencies. (A fictionalized but accurate representation of this came with the latest Bond film, Skyfall, in which the classic Q, an elderly gadget-maker, is replaced by a cocky young computer expert cracking codes and remotely guiding 007, played by Daniel Craig, while gazing at big-screen images of London’s Underground).
Mid-Level Capacities, ‘Black Funds’ and other Balkan Countries
The NIS (and other Greek agencies) have mid-level capabilities, compared to those of the leading countries. All Balkan countries (with the exception being perhaps Montenegro) have upgraded lately also their tech infrastructure like Greece- Turkey perhaps even more so.
Although these countries primarily purchase technology from Western companies, in some cases domestic production exists, as with Greece’s MILTECH, Intracom Defense and I.S.I, which have sold monitoring equipment since the mid-1990’s, reportedly even to the CIA.
In regards to SIGINT-ELINT capabilities, compared to countries such as the US or even China, Balkan-Mediterranean countries have much less capabilities, but are believed to still have enough to track a number of people with ease in a specific area. The difference between the US and a country like Greece is that the former strives for ‘total situational awareness’ – the ability to track everything, everywhere and all the time, on land, air, sea and space – whereas Greece has more modest ambitions, generally, to control its own territory and (in specific cases) the so-called ‘Near Abroad,’ the area between roughly Bosnia and Cyprus.
It is also known that Greece spends a lot of money on undisclosed intelligence operations. According to a Greek Parliament fiscal assessment, during the period 2007-2008 the Greek Police (the intelligence service was not specified) commandeered 120 million euros in “black funds.” That is substantial money for the Balkans. And the Greek Foreign Ministry – which some observers consider to have foreign intelligence ambitions comparable to the NIS – was allotted 152 million euros in “black funds” in 2010-2011.
It is also believed that the countries providing Greece (and others) with specialized monitoring equipment also benefit when they ask for favors (for example, to track specific nationals or radical figures). Some American services, for instance, have asked for such favors often from their Greek colleagues, who in turn can use the equipment provided by them. As with weapons systems, the country supplying them will ultimately ask for favors that are essentially in assistance of their foreign policy. If favors are not done, then upgraded models are not provided. The problem with software is that it has to be renewed because a newer version comes out every few years.
Conclusion: Part of a Global Trend
The developments in Greece are nothing particularly shocking, but they are indicative of a global trend in the acquisition of not only monitoring and tracking equipment but of all sorts of hacking and remote infiltration software, by states, companies, terrorist groups, organized crime rackets and wealthy individuals.
These transactions are increasingly being done not only between companies to governments in friendly states, but from Western companies to hostile or repressive states, both directly, or via middleman companies or on the black market. And states with advanced technology also use it domestically. Reporting on this trend has become popularized by the Wikileaks ‘Spy Files’ project of 2011, which released data about numerous companies involved in this multi-billion-dollar industry.
Despite the work of such investigative journalism entities and privacy advocates, the industry is simply too lucrative to be derailed and there is always a way for anyone with cash to find the equipment he seeks.
However, for the essential goal of state security, there will always be a role for human intelligence. Given the dangers of data loss/compromise and information overload leading to a lack of qualitative analysis specified above, it would be remiss for Greek security planners to do away with tried but true methods altogether in their quest for technological supremacy, in what is becoming a more and more level playing field globally.
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