Paphos Mayor Phedonas Phedonos says the Cypriot state let citizens down in the spy van case, suggesting it was settled with a fine and not a court trial to keep things hushed up.
According to the Phedonos, bits of stolen information from a controversial spy van operation in Cyprus were being collected potentially not only in the fight against terrorism but also for political purposes and even industrial espionage.
The mayor, who spoke on a local news radio station Wednesday, said he had no qualms about someone from Israel engaging in espionage in Cyprus but expressed concern over the state living citizens unprotected from being victimized by a private business collecting information that may be sold abroad.
“We are not talking about a state service, they’re not CIA, they’re not Mossad, they’re not CIS, it’s a private citizen who is carrying out spying activities in my country and collects data from messages, WhatsApp, and so on,” Phedonos said, adding that information could end up being sold and used to blackmail politicians and businessmen.
Last year a high profile case of a controversial spy van with covert surveillance capabilities, made and sold by an Israeli company in Cyprus, was settled with the owners paying close to a million euro in fees out of court due to privacy violations.
But an independent probe found no evidence of illegal spying on citizens, with Phedonos saying the case should still have been allowed to go to trial.
'The prosecution in this case was suspended because if it were to go forward in a court of law, I believe based on information I have that there would be unbelievable things coming out'
“The prosecution in this case was suspended because if it were to go forward in a court of law, I believe based on information I have that there would be unbelievable things coming out,” Phedonos asserted.
“If the Israeli man went to court, he would have said things that would expose in a cruel way people here who remain above suspicion,” the mayor explained.
But the mayor stopped short of saying who had been the recipients of information allegedly stolen by spy van operations.
“Be they police officers, politicians, those who needed to have the information, they got what they needed to get,” Phedonos said.
WiSpear, the company that owns the high-tech surveillance vehicle, vehemently denied ever spying on citizens and initially criticized law enforcement authorities for carrying out an investigation without properly understanding the technology.
But Phedonos alleged that political figures understood to be in Cyprus were among those involved in the case where both politicians and plain citizens were under surveillance.
“A state official went inside the van and police know about this, they know who got inside,” the mayor said, adding that “they made sure in a cunning way that this thing would be hushed up.”
Phedonos also said a high-ranking police official, whom he had identified by last name on the radio, knocked on his door in Paphos one day after driving all the way from Nicosia to ask him about information her had.
The mayor went on to suggest that unauthorized access to stolen information was being conducted in Cyprus as part of industrial espionage and other activities, such as selling information to embassies and using private data to blackmail individuals.
“They could manipulate all sorts of things and situations,” the mayor said, suggesting the processes involved were far more cunning.
Phedonos went on to suggest that information obtained during industrial espionage could be sold to the highest bidder, including people who may have an interest in competitive bidding on a public contract.
Phedonos said he worried that people authorized to conduct espionage “could end up keeping tabs on someone for other purposes,” including the sale of private corporate information.
“They can access the computer of a contractor and two hours before uploading his bid to eProcurement, talking about 70-100 million worth of contracts here, they could draw the information” which could then be sold to a competitor who could lower his or her price in exchange of a fee.
Last September, after two years of investigation, a probe concluded there was no proof of spying, targeting, or illegal phone tapping in the spy van case, with local reports saying prosecutors might go after a number of suspects on lesser charges.
But the case also drew the attention of Irene Loizidou-Nikolaidou, the country’s Commissioner for personal data protection, who told Knews “the fact that they came in paid the fine means they acknowledge the violation,” referring to privacy protocol breaches.
WiSpear maintains that any gathering of data in Cyprus was for demonstration purposes only and no information was ever used to identify any individual.
The case made headlines in 2019 after local politicians got wind of media reports about a super-pimped-out ride in Larnaca, a converted ambulance truck, that was also featured in a Forbes story about an Israeli former intelligence officer.