A cyber-attack on the internet systems of the main Belgian telecommunications company, Belgacom, was so massive and sophisticated that no company or country would have been able to withstand it, a European parliament committee looking into the mass surveillance operations of the US National Security Agency (NSA) and Britain's GCHQ was told yesterday.
The hearing of the parliament's civil liberties committee was told by Belgacom executives that it did not know the source or the purpose of the complex hacking operation detected in June. Sophie in 't Veld, the Dutch Liberal chairing the session, said the scale of the attack meant it could have been by only a "state actor".
Last month - quoting leaked documents from the NSA whistleblower, Edward Snowden - the German magazine Der Spiegel reported that the Belgacom systems had been infiltrated by GCHQ.
Sir Iain Lobban, director of GCHQ, had been scheduled to appear before the committee but refused. A letter from Sir Jon Cunliffe, the UK ambassador to the EU, obtained by the Guardian, said Lobban would not appear since intelligence and national security were none of the EU's business. The letter said GCHQ "adheres to strict principles of necessity, proportionality and legality . . . and upholds the law at all times, including when dealing with information from outside the UK".
MEPs voiced outrage that the UK government had failed to make anyone available for questioning over the allegations.
While the Belgacom executives emphasised that neither customers' nor citizens' privacy had been compromised, they also confirmed that the scale of the attack was unprecedented in their experience.
The Belgian PM, Elio Di Rupo, last month complained that the attacks amounted to an assault on the country's integrity and promised a strong response if the perpetrators were identified.