The attorney general of the Republic of Cyprus has appointed a special investigator in the “spy van” case, while the Israeli company that sells controversial surveillance vehicles is calling on authorities to investigate what it calls a “false accusations” campaign.
Attorney General Costas Clerides said he was appointing attorney Elias Stefanou to investigate whether any offences were committed under the privacy laws of the Republic, including constitutional violations over the rights of citizens to a private life.
Stefanou, a former attorney at the Legal Services Department, was recently involved in another case involving Israeli youths who were arrested and subsequently released in a rape case in Ayia Napa.
Clerides was initially reluctant to intervene in the spy van case, having responded to critics previously by saying he would step in only if he thought police wouldn’t be able to carry out an unbiased investigation.
“In the absence of any strong evidence, police shall continue its investigation and if there are is any information that warrants my involvement in assigning other investigators, we shall look into it,” Clerides had said previously.
Thousands of email addresses were collected but it was not clear whether the information was scooped up in violation of privacy laws
The case involves a police investigation over a high-tech surveillance vehicle, which was featured in a Forbes story in June 2019. The story was not picked up on the island until recently, with a series of questions emerging over possible breach of privacy laws.
Politicians and media outlets raised a number of questions, putting police on the defensive over reports law enforcement had known about the spy van’s surveillance capabilities and possibly could have used those services.
The spy van has been the center of media attention in Cyprus after it was reported that WiSpear, a Cypriot-registered Israeli company, was offering spy capabilities on the island. According to WiSpear’s CEO Tal Dilian, the van known as the SpearHead 360 can hack multiple devices all at once.
Dilian, a former officer of the Israeli Defense Forces who headed the IDF signal intelligence corps, says his vehicle has “access to a range of publicly-unknown Android and iOS vulnerabilities -known as zero-days- which are required for any successful hacks to work on the Google and Apple operating systems.”
But stories in the local media reported on uncertainty among the public and political parties over the possibility that the van might have been carrying out local operations. Some reports also linked the van to Avraham Shahak Avni, the head of Cypriot security company CIS International Group in Larnaca, who was said to have visited the offices of ruling party Disy in the past.
Jewish community concerned over inaccurate reports
Avni, an Israeli businessman who holds a Cypriot passport, was also described as the leader of the Jewish community on the island. A statement from Jewish Community Cyprus flatly denied Avni’s involvement while adding that a lot of inaccurate information in the media was a cause of grave concern among its members.
“The Jewish Community respects and complies fully with the laws of the Republic of Cyprus, including Cypriot values and traditions, and always remains cooperative with the authorities,” the statements said.
But a statement from WiSpear took matters a step further, warning it could take legal action against those who were responsible “for misrepresentations that cause deliberate and irreversible damage to its public image and business activities.”
Last week WiSpear said people with no knowledge on the matter were spreading rumours and accusations in what they called a “witch hunt with unclear motives and aspirations.”
“Therefore, the company demand that the police would investigate and find who was standing behind the false accusations on the company’s activities,” WiSpear said.
Cypriot police, who have confiscated the van, were said to be waiting for Dilian’s return to the island for questioning. Last week, the WiSpear CEO was attending an expo in Paris where the company hoped to advance its product and expertise.
This week, unconfirmed reports on the island said thousands of email addresses had been collected by the spy van, however it was not clear whether the information was scooped up in violation of privacy laws.
The discovery reportedly took place as police were attempting to locate malware allegedly installed in the van’s computers that could potentially become the basis for warrants in the course of the investigation.
WiSpear has not denied using malware but insists that the spy van “has not been active within Cypriot territory other than for demo and field tests purposes only, solely on company owned devices, and under the guidelines directed by the local authorities prior starting the activities and acknowledgment of the official relevant agencies before and throughout the company’s demo activities.”
Experts say the controversial spy gear is primarily designed to fight terrorism and organized crime but critics also pointed out that “bad actors” could also use the powerful technology in violation of privacy laws, including governments spying on their own citizens.