Europe should tackle home-grown Echelons, says MEP

European spying as much a menace as US bugging

A European Parliamentary committee report on Echelon has failed to censure Holland, Germany and France who are likely to be equally active in spying on their citizens electronically.

That's the view of Maurizio Turco, an Italian member of the European Parliament, who sat on its temporary committee on Echelon and whose opinions have been added to the committee's final report on the subject, which will be debated by the European Parliament as a whole in September.

Echelon is 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, not military traffic.

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.

A report by the temporary committee looking into the subject, which was published this week, concluded that Echelon almost certainly existed but downplayed concerns that it was being used for widespread industrial espionage.

Echelon is considered by the parliament as something of a paper tiger, and MEPs have dismissed speculation that the system can intercept virtually all electronic communications around the globe through intercepting satellite transmissions.

The report makes it clear that the parliamentarians dislike Echelon, but makes the tacit admission that beyond stepping up diplomatic pressure on the US to abide by human right and privacy laws, there's little that Europe can do about it.

In the view of Turco, Europeans would do better to look closer to home when investigating the civil rights dangers posed by government surveillance system. In short, his argument is that Holland, Germany and France (the biggest critic of Echelon) are bigger buggers of their own citizens than the Anglo-Saxon nations they're so paranoid about.

"The report takes for granted the probable existence of the Anglo-Saxon system and overshadows what is certain about Germany and Holland. It speaks on behalf of a presumed 'European' industry while it shuts the 'European citizen' up," said Turco.

After looking at Echelon, the committee of MEPs has come up with the recommendation that encryption should be more widely used to protect the confidentiality of sensitive communications, just in case they might be intercepted by systems like Echelon.

For all the work the European Parliament has put into the subject the exact capabilities of Echelon still remain unclear, and will probably remain so given the climate of secrecy that surrounds such matters. ®

Related stories:
European Parliament Temporary Committee on the Echelon Interception System
Echelon FAQ

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Euro Parliament to investigate Echelon

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