Telecom Italia embroiled in new espionage scandal

Cloak-and-dagger story of hacking and spying brings four arrests, including the company's head of information security

Milan magistrates have arrested four Telecom Italia employees for alleged illegal espionage activities, bringing a fresh wave of scandal crashing down onto the former national carrier.

The suspects were identified as Fabio Ghioni, the head of information security at Telecom Italia; his assistant, Rocco Lucia; and Guglielmo Sasinini, a former journalist who had been hired by the company to conduct country risk analyses for the Middle East region, according to a 230-page arrest warrant signed by Judge Giuseppe Gennari and widely cited in newspaper reports Friday.

A fourth warrant was served in prison on Giuliano Tavaroli, the former head of security at Telecom Italia, who had already been incarcerated on illegal espionage charges as a result of a separate investigation.

The four men are accused of using Telecom Italia’s resources to spy on Vittorio Colao, the former executive chief executive officer of the Rizzoli Corriere della Sera (RCS) publishing group, and on Massimo Mucchetti, the deputy director of the Corriere della Sera newspaper, as part of an elaborate intelligence operation that has all the hallmarks of a spy thriller, according to wire reports Thursday and newspaper articles Friday.

Ghioni and his colleagues targeted Mucchetti because of his well-informed and critical articles about Telecom Italia and its parent company, Pirelli, according to an article in the Corriere della Sera, which contained excerpts from a book written by Muchetti on the subject.

Ghioni, the head of a 10-member "Tiger Team" set up to run penetration tests against Telecom Italia's information security system, allegedly used a Trojan program, a Telecom Italia server in Rome, and computers in Brazil and Switzerland to break into Colao's company notebook computer and steal sensitive data.

Among the documents allegedly stolen was a draft version of RCS's three-year business plan. Ghioni allegedly exploited the theft by contacting RCS and warning the company that its security measures were inadequate. He told company officials the business plan was floating around on hacker Web sites and offered to take over the RCS security function himself, newspapers reported Friday.

The modus operandi resembled that of his former boss Tavaroli, who allegedly rose to the top of Telecom Italia’s security department after engineering the discovery of an electronic bug planted in the Telecom Italia chief executive officer’s car in 2001. The then head of security at Telecom Italia was fired for the lapse, and Tavaroli was able to take his place.

The suspects allegedly exploited contacts with officers of the French domestic intelligence service Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire (DST) to spy on Pirelli Chairman Marco Tronchetti Provera and his family when they spent time in Paris. They are also accused of spying on Mucchetti’s bank accounts and are even alleged to have hired an attractive young woman to loiter in a bar near the Corriere della Sera in the hopes of picking up the newspaper’s deputy director.

Though himself a victim of the Tiger Team’s espionage, Tronchetti Provera has also been accused by a collaborating witness of having a professional interest in some of the intelligence that was allegedly illegally gathered by Ghioni, Tavaroli, and their associates.

Milan prosecutors say the quantity and quality of the information gathered on behalf of Pirelli/Telecom was completely out of proportion to the real needs of the group.

Tronchetti Provera issued a statement Thursday saying he had never authorized the illegal collection of information on anyone and had “taken absolutely no part in any illegal activity.”

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.