'Big brother' surveillance

Print edition : September 30, 2000

The European Parliament sets up a committee to investigate the activities of Echelon, a spy network engaged in intercepting international communications.

PERHAPS more appropriate to the world of James Bond than to the European Union, Echelon, an international spy network in which governments covertly cooperate with one another to intercept global communications, is causing a stir in the European Parliamen t.

Relying on secrecy and denial, governments rarely admit the existence of networks such as Echelon, a system run since 1947 by the secret services of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand to intercept global communicatio ns. However, a move in the European Parliament to bring such systems finally to account has gained momentum. Since James Woolsey, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), confessed in The Wall Street Journal that the system existe d but claimed that it was only used to stop other countries from bribing their way to lucrative contracts, denial is no longer a viable option. Many people now recognise that a clear boundary between law enforcement and the interception of international communication for the sake of 'national security' is essential for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Notwithstanding European laws designed to protect civil liberties, many members of the European Parliament were concerned that not enough was being done to protect citizens' rights from intrusion by the Echelon. Attempts to bring the system to account ar e emerging within the European Union. In France, an investigation has been launched into the Echelon's operations, and in the Netherlands a parliamentary committee has announced plans to hold hearings on the issue in the autumn. In the European Parliamen t, at the initiative of the Socialist Group a vote was taken during the last plenary session in July to establish a temporary committee on the Echelon interception system.

Political parties in the European Parliament responded to the reluctance of national governments to take a strong position on the Echelon issue. The committee will not have any powers to call upon witnesses to testify or the right of access to confidenti al documents. Nevertheless it will put the issue on the political agenda for the first time in more than half a century. Investigations into Echelon will quell some of the wilder speculations about the system and hopefully help assess the extent of surve illance activity and the ways in which it can be subjected to democratic checks and balances. The committee will be instructed to determine whether and how such a system can be made compatible with community law, in particular where the public's right to be protected against secret service activities is concerned.

Echelon is the most powerful intelligence-gathering organisation in the world. Emerging from cooperative efforts during the Second World War to intercept radio transmissions, it has developed into a global system of "big brother" surveillance. Using tele communication satellites, Echelon covertly interprets and processes international communications. Sophisticated "dictionary" computers tap into telecommunications traffic - domestic and international - indiscriminately. Searches are conducted on all phon e calls, faxes and e-mails using "keywords" and "voiceprints" to identify anything and anyone that is deemed interesting. The information is then transferred to the appropriate country.

What is needed is to solve the dilemma over allowing intelligence services like Japan's Chobetsu to monitor criminal activities such as terrorism, drugs trafficking and organised crime without undermining basic civil rights. Clearly it needs to be ensure d that the police and the security services can keep up with organised criminals as their means of communication become increasingly sophisticated and international. However, there is a problem with the use of Echelon and similar systems to monitor peopl e indiscriminately, regardless of democratic control or accountability. Day-to-day operations of the police and the security services should not be under political control, but these forces must be accountable to the over-arching principles under which t hey operate. Politicians need to be able to control the categories of people monitored and scrutinise the contents of the dictionary.

It will not be easy for governments to take on intelligence communities, which are accustomed to operating beyond the realm of political control. But the impetus may come from less philanthropic sources. The investigative journalist Duncan Campbell, in h is report for the European Parliament, "Intercepting Capabilities 2000", contended that those involved in Echelon used their worldwide array of satellite devices to conduct industrial espionage and suggested that "there are European enterprises in the si tuation of having unfair chances as a result of this system". More recently he estimated that this cost Japan and Europe $20 billion a year in lost contracts. The committee has been asked to investigate this aspect of Echelon's operations. If it is found to be true, that would cause more concern in some quarters than the civil liberties dimension.

Another remit of the Committee will be to investigate whether encryption - prevention of the processing of message content and associated traffic - will defeat hostile communications intelligence activity. As the European Union puts the finishing touches to its telecommunications policy, it will have to consider whether locking the doors to electronic snooping is in the national and international interest. There is no agreed 'code of conduct' to protect jobs and investments from economic spying while al lowing criminals to be monitored wherever they are in the world. The committee will be invited to submit policy and legislative proposals where it is appropriate and where conflicts of interest will be difficult to surmount. The committee is expected to recommend measures and a framework within which such a code of conduct could be established. A great deal hangs on how effectively the committee does its work.

Glyn Ford is a member of the European Parliament from the United Kingdom.

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