Letter from Thessaloniki

«Spies from Salonika» was the title of a second-rate 1937 melodrama by the German film director Georg Wilhem Pabst. It tells a story that still begs these questions: Did spying matter that much? Does it still? Set during World War I and featuring an attractive German spy, a handsome French officer, sweaty cabarets, Byzantine domes and a backdrop of the Thermaic Gulf, «Spies» explored malevolent spymasters, intricate tradecraft and cold-eyed betrayal. At the time, the northern port was being transformed into «one of the busiest hives of humanity in the world,» according to a British reporter of the time. Between 1912 and 1916, an influx of Greek refugees, the arrival of the Army of the Orient, street traders and businessmen plumped the city’s population to almost 170,000. With several hundred thousand soldiers camped in and around Thessaloniki, this period of «feverish activity» struck the British journalist as «probably the most crowded city in the universe» – a city of spies. So back to that question: Does spying matter? The answer is, quite often, no – unless the spy gets a hold of an important secret. Then, of course, it matters. But alas, those are past glories. Today, in an age of bewildering technical advances, while stakes are ratcheting up quickly as we enter the coming wireless age and when international intelligence services are engaged in an unparalleled drive to acquire the latest in Western state-of-the-art technological secrets, Thessaloniki is again left in the dust. No one is snooping on this city. The record also shows that with so many local honorary consuls who cannot be fingered for doing undiplomatic things, it is tempting to believe that spying isn’t a serious business in this provincial city. Sadly, Athens has more spies under a wider range of false mustaches. Out of a list of about 100 people whose mobile telephones were tapped in this conspiracy targeting Greece’s top political leadership – including Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, his wife Natassa, along with 11 individuals with Arab-sounding surnames – only a measly four were from Thessaloniki. As the furor continues over Greece’s Watergate scandal, several critical questions remain, such as why the Vodafone company so hastily disabled the software, making it impossible to trace the unidentified eavesdroppers. But the maelstrom will be centered on Athens, not in «Salonica, City of Ghosts» (borrowing from the title from the excellent Mark Mazower chronicle.) Here in Thessaloniki, we can’t organize any decent anti-American demonstration without getting into a fight with each other first. In Thessaloniki, people drive too fast, eat and drink too much and generally reject such obtuse concepts as bridge tolls, fuel economy and environmental controls, embraced by their brothers in the south. In Thessaloniki, we don’t attract spies. «We’ve become residents of a city full of wimps. Pansies. Dimitris Starovas types – who cook and clean and relate to their wives,» sighs journalist Christos Tellidis, who heads the local office of Ethnos newspaper. But why don’t we have any officials worthy of being wire-tapped? Did we in this city not also contribute generously to the over 1-billion-euro security price tag for the Olympics, which apparently initiated this phone tapping business? It worries me no end that 10,000 years from now we’ll be remembered not as a center of humanistic learning, or theological debate, not as a city with phone-tapped celebrities, but likely as the civilization that created the best tzatziki and restaurants that spin. «Don’t worry!» says Kostas Tanidis, who heads the computer department at the local ANT1 station. «Unlike Athenians, Thessalonians don’t have telephones in the shape of Snoopy,» he said. «And politically, the locals are, well, realistic. Yet it is not mere geography anymore. All told, today’s perils are of a more complex nature. Before long our computers will probably be high-performance, hand-held devices that know well our physical location at all times. Telephone companies and Internet service providers already have the ability to keep track of the sites you visit, you know.» Yes, I do know. And if the pocket-size PCs have spies inside them, the capacity to monitor our lives will be virtually unlimited. It is creepy. Computers will be spying on us. Actually, they are already doing so with «cookies,» or slightly dodgy software that can be stored on your computer to keep a record of visitors. Apparently, it’s easy for diverse companies to link the cookies you got by visiting different websites with other personal information about yourself. Or something like that. «There is software that plants itself in the depths of your hard drive and….» I refused to listen to more. Nevertheless, we can be reassured about something else. Cell phones may be used for spying, but they are probably not hazardous to our health. This I know because an article in The Guardian, a paper I trust, reported about an exhaustive study which concluded that using a mobile phone does increase one’s chances of getting the most common form of brain cancer. This news may not be as epic a thriller as a spy ring, but, in Thessaloniki, another Greek city devoted cell phones, it makes for a quite practical sense of relief.

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