ROME — Russia denied reports in the Italian media and elsewhere Wednesday that Russian spy agencies distributed special USB thumb drives doctored to let them eavesdrop on delegations attending last month’s Group of 20 summit meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia.
“We don’t know the sources of the information,” said Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, said RIA Novosti, news agency. “However, this is undoubtedly nothing but an attempt to shift the focus from issues that truly exist in relations between European capitals and Washington to unsubstantiated, nonexistent issues.”
European leaders have been outraged by reports that the US National Security Agency spied on allies in Europe, including Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany. The US spying operation has created a diplomatic crisis for the Obama administration, stirring fury in France, Spain, and Germany, while intensifying criticism in Washington about the scope and methods of US espionage.
On Wednesday, the focus shifted to Russia, as Corriere della Sera, a leading Italian newspaper, carried allegations that the G-20 meeting was the scene of a major effort in Russian espionage. According to the paper, Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, had a debriefing with security officials after returning from St. Petersburg.
The security team then conducted an examination of the thumb drives, which the Russians distributed as gifts to the 300 foreign delegates, who also got stuffed teddy bears, cups, diaries, and cables to connect smartphones with computers, the Italian paper said. Later, the European Council’s security office sent a report to G-20 participants, warning some of the USB drives, as well as the cables, appeared to have been tampered with, it said.
The European officials then handed the devices to German intelligence services, which conducted more tests and concluded that the sabotaged electronic equipment could be used to intercept data from computers and mobile phones.