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EU checking Russian G20 gifts for bugs

The European Commission said Wednesday it is checking gifts and gadgets which host Russia gave to delegations at last month’s G20 summit to see if they pose a security risk.

With daily revelations stoking concerns over the extent of covert surveillance by friend and foe alike, the latest reports suggest that Russia hoped to trick G20 delegates into using devices which could feed back sensitive information.

Asked about the reported gifts of phone chargers and USB drives, Commission spokesman Frederic Vincent said the authorities were looking into the matter.

“Our findings up to now, based upon analysis of hardware and software, have not amounted to any serious security concerns,” Vincent said.

“However, it is too early to tell whether… the gifts… (will be found to be) fully clean,” he said, with the examination ongoing.

“As a general rule, EU officials when they are travelling are advised not to use external (technical material),” he added.

After initial reports of snooping by the US, sourced to documents provided by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, the spying scandal has ballooned out of control, with otherwise close allies such as Washington and Brussels in heated exchanges.

It was reported last week that the US National Security Agency had tapped the mobile phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel for years.

EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said Tuesday that “friends and partners do not spy on each other” and warned that Washington must restore trust if negotiations towards a transatlantic free trade deal are to bear fruit.

In turn, James Clapper, head of US intelligence, said a “basic tenet” of spy agencies is to try to learn the intentions of foreign leaders.

So far, Russia has not been involved directly but Moscow, as well as Beijing, has in the past been accused of extensive espionage on the West.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is a former agent of the feared KGB intelligence services and he also headed its post-Soviet successor, the FSB.

In Moscow, a Kremlin spokesman dismissed the issue as a red herring.

“This is no doubt nothing but an attempt to divert attention from the real problems between Washington and Europe toward non-existent, ephemeral issues,” spokesman Dmitri Peskov told the Ria Novosti news agency.