The Kremlin is strongly denying allegations made in two Italian newspapers that Russian spies handed out gift bags with bugged thumb drives and phone rechargers to delegates at the recent Group of Twenty summit in St. Petersburg.
According to the stories published Tuesday in Corriere Della Serra and La Stampa, the Russians tore a page out of the National Security Agency's playbook in early September and used the gathering of top world leaders as an opportunity to scoop up some intel.
The stories recount tense meetings at the G-20 over issues like Syria and the global economic crisis, followed by the traditional distribution of goodies by the summit host. Among the souvenirs handed out by the Russians this year, Corriere Della Serra says, were USB drives for computers and cables for charging mobile phones.
However, the paper says, when European Council President Herman Van Rompuy took the devices to intelligence experts in Brussels and Germany, he was told that they contained "Trojan horse" programs capable of monitoring computer and mobile phone data. A warning was subsequently sent out to Western participants in the G-20 to avoid using the gadgets and to hand them over to security for tests.
President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, explicitly denied the reports and suggested they were an attempt to distract world opinion from the ongoing revelations about the NSA based on documents leaked by the agency's former contractor Edward Snowden.
"We don’t know the sources of the information [published by the Italian papers]. However, this is undoubtedly nothing but an attempt to shift the [public] focus from issues that truly exist in relations between European capitals and Washington to unsubstantiated, non-existent issues," Mr. Peskov told the official RIA-Novosti agency.
Mr. Snowden was granted a year's refuge in Russia last August and, in recent statements to the media, he has insisted that he has no regrets about the wave of stunning public revelations about NSA spying fueled by the documents he provided to journalists.
The US was so irritated by the Kremlin's decision to take Snowden in, and other Russian behaviors, that President Obama canceled a planned summit meeting with Mr. Putin which was to have preceded September's G-20 meeting.
"Nobody will be surprised to hear these allegations" about Russian spying at the G-20, says Andrei Soldatov, editor of the online security-oriented journal Agentura.ru and co-author of a recent study that warned of total surveillance of visitors to the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics by Russian security services.
"We are living in a new world, with new technologies, but still carrying on as if it were still the cold war. Everyone is coming to the conclusion that we need a new set of rules. But there is this problem of trust. How do we break these old habits, and move toward some kind of new framework we can all agree on?" he says.