Proof of the existence of the satellite and listening post spy network known as Echelon is a subject that has been on the lips of politicians, human rights and privacy protestors for several years.
Now, since the European Commission published its inquiry into whether Echelon exists and for what purpose on Tuesday this week, we know at once a lot more and very little.
The EC found ‘no proof’ that information gleaned from Echelon had been used for industrial espionage but its general warning to encrypt all private email seems contradictory to its stated findings.
“We haven’t found anything this time, but that does not mean other bodies aren’t illegally obtaining information from private emails. is a matter of precaution,” said an EC spokesman.
But despite the mass availability of encryption software its protection against government hackers and the U.K. Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Act appears minimal.
“The RIP lets access suspicious information,” said a spokesperson at GCHQ (government communications headquarters in Cheltenham). “Without this power terrorists, paedophiles and all manner of criminals would be able to hold encrypted data without consequence.”
On the face of it this legislation provides the government with all the power it needs to access ‘suspicious’ data. But what privacy proponents and civil rights activists have against Echelon is its indiscriminate snooping.
“Echelon does not require a suspicion element and yes, this does mean innocent people’s personal information may have been snooped on,” explained an EC spokesperson. “The problem for us is where to draw a line between a right to privacy and the need for governments to monitor criminal activities.”
The EC report concluded there was no solid evidence to prove the U.S. had been passing on European trade secrets to give U.S. businesses a competitive advantage.
“What we cannot deny or prove is that information is passed on to companies,” said Mr Gerhard Schmid, vice-president of the European Parliament. “The problem is there are no tracks or traces of interception.”
But when EC representatives went to the U.S. to research Echelon, both the CIA and the NSA (National Security Agency) refused to meet with them, even though they had originally agreed to the meeting. It seems the United Kingdom may have had a hand in this snub.
“We are concerned about the role we think the British government has played in this,” said the committee’s vice-chairwoman, Elly Plooij-Van Gorsel in a press statement this week. “There is a lot of concern it was they who had told the Americans not to speak to us.”
Despite U.S. denials of the existence of Echelon throughout the EC investigation, in a document issued by the White House in 1992 the U.S. government justified its use of the CIA and NSA for spying on European companies, stating its purpose was for ‘levelling the playing field’ in foreign policy.
The French government has also claimed in the past that aerospace firm Airbus lost a contract for supplying aircraft to Saudi Arabia due to the interception of emails and faxes by the Echelon network. It is no surprise the United States didn’t want to talk about Echelon.
“When Europe became concerned about the Echelon system, such stories stopped appearing in the U.S. media, and information dried up,” said reporter Duncan Campbell in his latest report ‘Germany, U.K. breaching Human Rights with NSA spy link-up’.
Campbell wrote several early reports for the EC on Echelon and related snooping.
Ultimately the EC is powerless against Echelon, because there is no European law to cover this issue of routine interception and, therefore, these activities fall outside the remit of the Commission. Companies would have to bring cases in domestic courts.
“There would seem to be good reason,” concluded Campbell, “to call on the U.K. to take their obligations under the seriously and to make the authorisation of further intelligence activities… compliant with it.”