Frenchelon - France has nothing to envy in Echelon

France has its very own Echelon, located within the Paris region and equipped with semantic analysis engines that sort out the information. By Jerome Thorel, Editor of ZDNet News, France

"The French have nothing to envy the Americans for. France has its very own Echelon, located within the Paris region and equipped with semantic analysis engines that sort out the information".

This is what a DST (French equivalent of MI6) officer told journalists in 1998 following the first denunciation of Echelon by the European Parliament. Ironically, it was the French who complained most bitterly about Echelon's covert activities and indeed, several companies and individuals are now persuing a legal case against America's National Security Agency (NSA).

That France endowed itself with such capabilities, however, is no surprise. The French weekly magazine, Le Point, dubbed France's equivalent electronic surveillance network 'Frenchelon'. According to reports, the site has been developed over the years by two bodies from the French Ministry of Defence: on the one hand the DGSE -- a broad term for the secret services -- and on the other the DRM (Direction du Renseignement Militaire) which manages military information.

The first detailed list of French bases was published by Le Monde in February. The bases are apparently linked to the DGSE (ex-GCR, Groupement des Contrôles Radioélectriques or grouping of radio-electric controls).

According to Le Monde: "These means of interception, by satellite or other, are deployed in Alluets-Feucherolles (Yvelines), Agde (Hérault), Domme (Dordogne), Mutzig (Bas-Rhin/Lower Rhine) and Solenzara (Southern Corsica), Saint-Barthélemy (in the West-Indies), Reunion Island, Djibouti and Mayotte (Indian Ocean)."

In a confidential letter dated 16th March 2000, Le Monde du Renseignement counted over a dozen bases and added to the existing list the plateau d'Albion (Alps of Haute-Provence), a commune of the Oriental Pyrenees (Saint-Laurent de la Salanque) and the Filley barracks in Nice. Furthermore, an agreement with the United Arab Emirates authorised the installation of surveillance stations in that region of the Gulf.

Another base mentioned by Jean Guisnel (author of the investigation published by Le Point last year): is "secretly planted on the space station Kourou [with the help of the German services], specially made available to oversee American and South American satellite communications/transmissions."

Kourou is also quoted as one of the bases "linked and/or associated" with Echelon.

Generally speaking, France is taking adantage of its overseas provinces and ex-colonies to widen its listening capabilities to a global scale: New Caledonia for the Pacific and Asia areas, the Emirats, Djibouti and Reunion Island for Africa and the Middle East, West-Indies and Kourou for the American continent.

In addition to the ground-bases, we are able to reconstitute France's entire known arsenal:

Satellites Helios-1A and 1B

Issued from the space observation programme Helios IS controled by the DRM.

Officially: Helios-1A (launched in August 1995) takes high-definition photos focused on protecting France against conflicts. But in June 1998, Le Point revealed that a stowaway, an "interception cartridge known as Euracom" took its place at Helios' side. Manufacturered by Dassault Systèmes (version confirmed by an official report filed by the Assembly in October 1998), the cartridge is thought to intercept Inmarsat and Intelsat signals.

  • Space : When Helios-1A was launched, an experimental interception vehicle ("Cherry") was put into orbit.

  • Air: The same sources also suggest that surveillance stations are being airlifted by the "electronic information planes, Gabriel and Sarigue".

  • Sea: Current marine units are believed to be due for a replacement in 2001 by the Bougainville, a ship equipped for electromagnetic research.

Although Frenchelon seems efficient at spying on radio-electric or satellite signals, the real superiority of Echelon lies in its capacity to intercept massive amounts of Internet and telephone traffic. The 120 Echelon satellites revealed by Duncan Campbell in his report to the European Parliament are able to capture the terrestrial relays of European public telephones as well as the ten main Internet exchange points that run through the United States, a practically mandatory relay for intra-European exchanges. On the other hand, it would be difficult to imagine the French services unable to intercept IP traffic conveyed via the points of exchange of the Hexagone.

The official line on what is now termed 'Frenchelon' is that it exists as a means of defence, to protect France against conflicts, terrorism and the proliferation of nuclear arms. However, France's surveillance operations are, as with Echelon, prime suspects of economic espionage, engaging in what has become a fiercly contested International sport, which aims to retain or gain market shares.

Go to ZDNet's Echelon Special

The British are keeping a stiff upper lip, the US simply avoid mentioning it and the French believe it has been stealing secrets from France for years. Go to the TalkBack forum to tell us what you know and think about Echelon.

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