the athens affair
On 9 March 2005, smart hackers a 38-year-old Greek pulled off the most electrical engineer audacious cell-network named costas Tsalikidis was found hanged in his break-in ever athens loft apartment, By Vassilis Prevelakis an apparent suicide. It & Diomidis Spinellis would prove to be merely the first public news of a scandal that would roil Greece for months. The next day, the prime minister of Greece was told that his cellphone was being bugged, as were those of the mayor of athens and at least 100 other high-ranking dignitaries, including an employee of the U.S. embassy. The victims were customers of athensbased Vodafone-Panafon, generally
how some extremely
known as Vodafone Greece, the country’s largest cellular service provider; Tsalikidis was in charge of network planning at the company. a connection seemed obvious. Given the list of people and their positions at the time of the tapping, we can only imagine the sensitive political and diplomatic discussions, high-stakes business deals, or even marital indiscretions that may have been routinely overheard and, quite possibly, recorded.
Even before Tsalikidis’s death, investigators had found rogue soft ware installed on the Vodafone Greece phone network by parties unknown. Some extraordinarily knowledgeable people either pen etrated the network from outside or subverted it from within, aided by an agent or mole. In either case, the software at the heart of the phone system, investigators later discov ered, was reprogrammed with a finesse and sophistication rarely seen before or since. A study of the Athens affair, surely the most bizarre and embarrassing scandal ever to engulf a major cell phone service provider, sheds consid erable light on the measures networks can and should take to reduce their vulnerability to hackers and moles. It’s also a rare opportunity to get a glimpse of one of the most elusive of cybercrimes. Major network pene trations of any kind are exceedingly uncommon. They are hard to pull off, and equally hard to investigate. Even among major criminal infil trations, the Athens affair stands out because it may have involved state secrets, and it targeted indi viduals—a combination that, if it had ever occurred before, was not disclosed publicly. The most notorious penetration to compro mise state secrets was that of the “Cuckoo’s Egg,” a name bestowed by the wily network administrator who successfully pursued a German programmer in 1986. The program mer had been selling secrets about the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”) to the Soviet KGB. But unlike the Cuckoo’s Egg, the Athens affair targeted the conversa tions of specific, highly placed gov ernment and military officials. Given the ease with which the conversations could have been recorded, it is gener ally believed that they were. But no one has found any recordings, and we don’t know how many of the calls were recorded, or even listened to, by the perpetrators. Though the scope of the activity is to a large extent unknown, it’s fair to say that no other computer crime on record has had the same potential for capturing informa tion about affairs of state. While this is the first major infiltration to involve cellphones, the scheme did not depend on the wireless nature of the network.
Basically, the hackers broke into a telephone network and subverted its builtin wiretapping features for their own purposes. That could have been done with any phone account, not just cellular ones. Nevertheless, there are some elements of the Vodafone Greece system that were unique and crucial to the way the crime was pulled off. We still don’t know who com mitted this crime. A big reason is that the UKbased Vodafone Group, one of the largest cellular providers in the world, bobbled its handling of some key log files. It also reflexively removed the rogue software, instead of letting it continue to run, tipping off the perpetrators that their...
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