European Parliament adopts Echelon report

BRUSSELS -- The European Parliament today adopted a report that says the global electronic surveillance network known as Echelon does exist.

Some 367 members of the European Parliament voted to support the report, which was several years in the making, while 159 voted against it and 34 members abstained at the parliament's plenary session in Strasbourg, France.

"This is a big step forward," said Ole Schmidt, a Swedish member of the European Parliament. "This is a damned important exercise in democracy. Now that a political body has revealed the existence of Echelon, we can put an end to the years of rumors upon the subject."

The report, published earlier this year (see story), failed to produce hard evidence that the U.S. is using the global telecommunications-tapping network to conduct industrial espionage. "It is frequently maintained that Echelon has been used in this way, but no such case has been substantiated," the report says.

However, the document lists several examples in which intelligence officers are believed to have interfered in a commercial contract. The report claims that European aircraft maker Airbus Industrie had its lines tapped in 1994 while negotiating a $6 billion contract with the Saudi Arabian government and national airline.

The European Parliament committee leading the Echelon investigation concluded that the spying network is limited mainly to satellite communications; therefore, a majority of telecommunications signals distributed terrestrially in Europe can't be tapped with the network.

"Echelon states have access to only a very limited proportion of cable and radio communications, and, owing to the large numbers of personnel required, can analyze only a limited proportion of those communications," the report says. Echelon was set up by the U.S., with the U.K., Canada, New Zealand and Australia, the report said.

Despite Echelon's limitations, the parliament said that by gaining access to e-mail, fax or telephone messages from Europe, the U.S. is breaching the European Convention on Human Rights. U.S. National Security Agency officials in the U.K. and Germany are believed to be intercepting such messages. The parliament urged the U.S. to comply with the convention.

It also recommended that all e-mail be encrypted and that calls for European governments and the European Union to "support projects aimed at developing user-friendly, open-source encryption software, as this is the only way of guaranteeing that no back doors are built into programs."

The European Parliament endorsement of the report will help speed efforts by the European Commission and member states of the EU to tighten telecommunications security, Schmidt said.

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