Behind the bugging operation were two pieces of sophisticated software, according to Ericsson. One was Ericsson’s own, some basic elements of which came as a preinstalled feature of the network equipment. When enabled, the feature can be used for lawful interception by government authorities, which has become increasingly common since the Sept. 11 terror attacks. But to use the interception feature, operators like Vodafone would need to pay Ericsson millions of dollars to purchase the additional hardware, software and passwords that are required to activate it. Both companies say Vodafone hadn’t done that in Greece at the time.
The second element was the rogue software that the eavesdroppers implanted in parts of Vodafone’s network to achieve two things: activate the Ericsson-made interception feature and at the same time hide all traces that the feature was in use. Ericsson, which analyzed the software in conjunction with Greece’s independent telecom watchdog, says it didn’t design, develop or install the rogue software.
The software allowed the cellphone calls of the targeted individuals to be monitored via 14 prepaid cellphones, according to the government officials and telecom experts probing the matter. They say when calls to or from one of the more than 100 targeted phones were made, the rogue software enabled one of the interceptor phones to be connected also.
The interceptor phones likely enabled conversations to be secretly recorded elsewhere, the government said during a February 2006 news conference. At least some of the prepaid cellphones were activated between June and August 2004. Such cellphones, particularly when paid for in cash, typically are harder to trace than those acquired with a monthly subscription plan.
Vodafone claims it didn’t know that even the basic elements of the legal interception software were included in the equipment it bought. Ericsson never informed the service provider’s top managers in Greece that the features were included nor was there a “special briefing” to the relevant technical division, according to a Vodafone statement in March.
But Ericsson’s top executive in Greece, Bill Zikou, claimed during parliamentary-committee testimony that his company had informed Vodafone about the feature via its sales force and instruction manuals.
Vodafone and Ericsson discovered something was amiss in late January 2005 when some Greek cellphone users started complaining about problems sending text messages. Vodafone asked Ericsson to look into the issue. Ericsson’s technicians spent several weeks trying to figure out the problem, with help from the equipment maker’s technical experts at its headquarters in Sweden. In early March of that year, Ericsson’s technicians told Vodafone’s technology director in Greece of their unusual discovery about the cause of the problems: software that appeared to be capable of illegally monitoring calls. It’s unclear exactly how the rogue software caused the text-messaging problem.
Ericsson confirmed the software was able to monitor calls, and Vodafone soon discovered that the targeted phones included those used by some of the country’s most important officials. On March 8, Mr. Koronias ordered that the illegal bugging program be shut down, in a move he has said was made to protect the privacy of its customers. He called the prime minister’s office the next evening.
The head of Greece’s intelligence service, Ioannis Korantis, said in testimony before the parliamentary committee last month that Vodafone’s disabling of the software before authorities could investigate hampered their efforts. “From the moment that the software was shut down, the string broke that could have lead us to who was behind this,” he said. Separately, he distanced his own agency from the bugging effort, saying it didn’t have the technical know-how to effectively monitor cellphone calls.