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Rogue agent and reporters: What you need to know about Italy's latest privacy scandal

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AFP/The Local - [email protected]
Rogue agent and reporters: What you need to know about Italy's latest privacy scandal
Italy's Defence Minister Guido Crosetto is just one of the hundreds of high-profile figures involved in Italy's latest privacy scandal. Photo by Geoffroy VAN DER HASSELT / AFP

There was widespread uproar in Italy this week over a privacy scandal involving the illegal acquisition and publication of files on hundreds of high-profile politicians and celebrities. Here’s what happened.

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Earlier this week Italy was rocked by a large-scale privacy scandal involving the illegal acquisition and publication of private information on hundreds of high-profile people, including football star Cristiano Ronaldo, Italian rapper Fedez, Defence Minister Guido Crosetto and the late Silvio Berlusconi's girlfriend Marta Fascina.

But what’s behind the investigation?

The story dates back to 2022, when Italian newspaper Domani published an investigation into the yearly earnings of Crosetto – then newly appointed to Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's cabinet – revealing his work as a consultant for private defence companies and highlighting a potential conflict of interest.

Crosetto then lodged a complaint, prompting an investigation that led to Pasquale Striano, an officer of the Guardia di Finanza financial crimes police deployed to the National Anti-Mafia Directorate (DNA).

Between November 2019 and November 2022, it later emerged, Striano made tens of thousands of searches in official databases in what investigating prosecutor Raffaele Cantone described as a "frantic search for information".

Some searches in the databases, which include information on ongoing legal proceedings, including over suspected financial transactions, were justified as part of his job.

But, in a hearing before a parliamentary committee on Thursday, Cantone said his team was investigating 800 potentially irregular entries related to some 165 people, many of them "subjects in the public eye, so-called VIPs".

He said Striano is accused of illegal access to a computer system and publication of official information.

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A separate strand of the investigation is also targeting an anti-mafia prosecutor in Rome, Antonio Laudati, suspected of having asked Striano to conduct four unjustified inquiries.

Striano's motivation remains unclear. The prosecutor said the officer was not cooperating with the inquiry and no financial benefit had emerged yet.

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Cantone confirmed four journalists had also been targeted in the investigation. Three of the investigated journalists reportedly work with left-wing daily Domani.   

It was Domani which revealed that Crosetto had earned around 2.3 million euros between 2018 and 2021 from companies in the arms industry, suggesting a potential conflict of interest.

Domani said the three journalists are now accused of improperly accessing computer systems in conjunction with Striano and of revealing secrets, for which they risk up to five years in jail.

Domani has so far condemned the investigation, considering it a further threat to press freedom in a country ranked 41st out of 180 in the annual index by campaign group Reporters without Borders. The case "is a warning to Domani and all journalists", the paper said.

Reaction from political leaders

Leaders from both sides of the Italian political spectrum have expressed outrage over the scandal.

"It is very serious that in Italy there are state officials who have spent their time breaking the law by checking on ordinary citizens […] and passing this information to the press," Meloni said earlier this week.

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"Using public databases in this way has nothing to do with freedom of the press," she added.

The League party of Matteo Salvini, Meloni's deputy prime minister, called it "illegal Soviet-style espionage".

Elly Schlein, leader of the main opposition centre-left Democratic Party, said it was a "scandal of unprecedented gravity".

"It is crucial that these kinds of things do not happen again," she said.

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