Sharp rise in bugging exposes Italians' dirty secrets to the public

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The Independent Online

The Eurispes think-tank has revealed that 30 million Italians between the ages of 15 and 70 has been bugged in the past 10 years. Their report says: "Every Italian family" has been touched by the phenomenon, "at least once." And the amount of bugging is increasing at blinding speed.

In the past five years, the government has paid €1.25bn (£820m) to the phone companies, public and private, to tap customers' phones for them. In the same period the number of taps increased by 125 per cent over the preceding five years.

The intrusion does not stop at tape-recording the conversations. When investigators pursuing the misdeeds of the high and mighty catch a top banker or politician or gangster in flagrante delicto on the phone, they waste no time in releasing the transcripts to the press. If they are juicy enough, they make front- page news. In Italy, phone-taps are used in evidence.

At 12 minutes past midnight on 12 July, Antonio Fazio, the governor of the Bank of Italy, phoned Gianpiero Fiorani, chief executive of a small Italian bank, the Banca Popolare Italiana (BPI). The major Dutch bank ABN Amro had been trying to win control of Banca Antonveneta, Italy's ninth biggest bank.

As the head of the Bank of Italy, Mr Fazio, appointed for life in 1993, is supposed to maintain scrupulous impartiality in such affairs. Instead, it was strongly suspected that he helped to engineer a reverse takeover by BPI, to keep Banca Antonveneta in Italian hands.

The phone-tap, made public this month, seemed conclusive. "Did I wake you up?" Mr Fazio asks Mr Fiorani. "No, no." "Right: I've just signed it, OK?" "Ah, Tonino," Mr Fiorani says, "I'm overcome with emotion, I've got goosebumps ... I'd like to kiss your forehead."

Opposition politicians and Luca di Montezemolo, the head of the employers' organisation, have called on Mr Fazio to resign. With the evidence staring the country in the face, it is thought unlikely that he can hang on indefinitely.

It is an assault on privacy that one would expect the freedom-loving, tax-evading Italians to resent. But when the Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, called for new controls to be put on phone-tapping, with jail terms of up to 10 years for those who leak transcripts, there was scant enthusiasm for the idea.

It is not merely the prurient delights of listening at important people's keyholes that checks opposition to phone-tapping. It is the widespread belief that bugging phones is often the only way for investigators, and the people, to find out some of what is really going on.