Russian hosts of the Group of 20 summit near St. Petersburg in September sent world leaders home with gifts designed to keep on giving: memory sticks and recharging cables programmed to spy on their communications, two Italian newspapers reported Tuesday.
A Kremlin spokesman denied the allegations reported by Il Corriere della Sera and La Stampa, both of which attributed their stories to findings of technical investigations ordered by the president of the European Council and carried out by German intelligence.
The USB thumb drives marked with the Russia G20 logo and the three-pronged European phone chargers were “a poisoned gift” from Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turin-based La Stampa [link in Italian] said in its report.
“They were Trojan horses designed to obtain information from computers and cellphones,” the paper said.
The bugging devices were included in gift bags given to all delegates who attended the Sept. 5-6 summit at the palace in Stelna, outside of St. Petersburg, the newspapers said.
Suspicions about the drives and rechargers were first raised by Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, Il Corriere della Sera [link in Italian] said in its front-page story.
Van Rompuy. from Belgium, ordered technical analysis of the devices by intelligence experts in Brussels and Bonn, the newspapers said. Initial investigation found “the USB sticks and the recharge cables are suitable for undercover detection of computer data and mobile phones,” the Italian newspapers said Van Rompuy reported to G20 members in a confidential memo.
Further tests are underway on the devices, and any official response to the Russian government’s alleged espionage attempts would depend on those findings, the articles said, quoting an unnamed European Union official.
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov denied the allegations of attempted spying and accused Western governments of trying to divert attention away from the scandals caused by disclosures that the U.S. National Security Agency has been spying on its allies’ communications.
“It is definitely nothing other than an attempt to switch attention from the problems that really exist, which dominate the agenda between the European capitals and Washington, to problems that are ephemeral and nonexistent,” Peskov said, according to the Voice of Russia broadcast.
Relations between Moscow and Washington have been cool since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden was granted asylum in Russia in August after leaking details of widespread U.S. surveillance of foreign and domestic phone calls, texts and emails.
British media carried extensive excerpts of the Italian newspapers’ reports and official British reaction. The Telegraph coverage included an unnamed diplomat’s disparaging remarks characterizing the reported Russian bugging attempt as a “schoolboy error” sure to be detected by any of the attending nations’ security services.