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A draft European Parliament report on the Echelon spy network has sent out conflicting messages to the public about the threat posed to privacy by the system.

On the one hand legislators said there was no solid evidence that the US-led network was involved in commercial espionage, but a draft report still encouraged Internet users to encrypt their email - just in case. A final report is expected in September but a Parliamentary group looking into Echelon meets today, which has created an explosion of interest in the subject.

European MPs have been investigating Echelon for over a year after allegations that the US had used the shadowy system to engage on a spot of industrial espionage on European firms.

Previous statements by the parliamentary temporary committee investigating Echelon have indicated that Brussels considered it something of a paper tiger, and have dismissed speculation that the system can intercept virtually all electronic communications around the globe.

One of the main reasons the committee reached this conclusion is that it doesn't believe the technology - be it speech recognition systems or filtering systems - is up to the job. In fact its main concern seems to be the lack of legislative oversight of the system.

Echelon refers to an automated global interception and relay system created during the cold war and operated by the intelligence agencies of the United States, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Unlike most spy systems Echelon is designed to intercept private and commercial communications, and not military traffic.

It has been suggested that Echelon may intercept as many as 3 billion communications everyday, including phone calls, email messages, Internet downloads and satellite transmissions.

Some estimates (probably wide of the mark) estimate that Echelon filters through 90 per cent of the traffic that flows through the Internet, but the exact capabilities of Echelon remain unclear. ®

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