Echelon: Europe quietly strengthens surveillance

Looking at the European attempt to sweep cross-border surveillance under the carpet, it would seem that feigned ignorance is the stock response from red-faced governments
Written by Jerome Thorel, Contributor

With EU support, the European telecommunications industry is finally putting the finishing touches to its cross-border surveillance strategy. The aim is to facilitate the work of police forces, as they increasingly find themselves drowned in an ocean of data.

Phone-monitoring specialists are a thing of the past -- eavesdropping takes on a modern approach in this new industrial and technological era. The whole range of modern data mining, keyword search, and database storage and management techniques provide the authorities with a new, browser-based desktop surveillance kit.

At a time when revelations regarding Echelon can't help but shed light on the risks of systematic surveillance, the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) has completed a kind of technical handbook of modern surveillance.

ZDNet has had access to the preliminary documents of this device: Intelligent Networks (IN); Lawful Interception. This highly technical document is not easily understood. Transparent translations are hard to find. The manuscript is under close examination from different European regulations courts. In France the Telecommunication Regulations Authority (ART) is dealing with the matter.

ETSI is to approve a final and definitive version of the Intelligent Networks (IN); Lawful Interception document at a meeting which will be held in Helsinki from 4 to 6 July.

European Political demands

The need to update Europe's surveillance system and strategy comes as a result of political demands: the ETSI's actions conform to a resolution passed by the European Ministers' Committee (17 January 1995). This resolution, "relative to the legal interception of telecommunications in accordance with new technologies", was accepted by the European Parliament on 7 May 1999.

In practice, such a network will only be able to operate within the existing laws applied in each country that is a member of the Union. While networks such as Echelon, or its French equivalent, rely on stealth or even secrecy, this system is applied with a certain transparency: any message intercepted legally will have to be stamped with a 'lawful interception identifier' or an identification number.

A tool to smooth the European legal system?

At a stage when European magistrates find it increasingly hard to help one another, and where investigations often stop at borders, it is no surprise that this kind of system should raise serious questions.

"The objective is to set up Unix operating systems, for crime-fighting purposes, in all telephonic networks, between all platforms used by operators, as well in all the major centres at the core of the Internet," explains Erich Moechel, an independent expert.

Moechel is not a new figure in this industry. Last February, he joined a panel of experts and contributed to an organised public hearing about the Echelon dossier in front of the European Parliament. "If this system is set up the police forces will control the entire network at all times by simple command line."

But who will guarantee this system will not be manipulated and used for illegal purposes? Any service portal, even restricted to police use, represents an opportunity for a hacker to take advantage of the system. This is one of the main reasons why the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) recently recommended that backdoors should not exist at the heart of IP protocol, as the risk for outsiders to illegally access information is too high.

Deputy ministers have reservations

Many French and other European members of the Parliament remain suspicious. In Strasbourg, ministers closely involved with the update of the Echelon network have not been able to react to the full significance of this document.

Legal regulation officials maintain a similarl attitude. A contact of ART, who ZDNet interviewed, refused to give us any further details. ZDNet also attempted to obtain information from the CNCIS (National Security Interception Control Commission) who support the monitoring needs and demands of the French government. "Our organisation represents the private sector, we cannot speak for the government," we were told.

Big brother strikes again!

An informal group named Enfopol can be found behind the work of the ETSI. Its code name, Enforcement Police, was used during internal discussions between European police forces, resulting in the 1995 Resolution. It is clear that the United States has been very influential in securing European support and reinforcing public surveillance networks.

The Campbell Report Interception Capabilities 2000 -- dating from 1999 and recently updated by the European Parliament -- also exposes the importance of a secret group known as ILETS (International Law Enforcement Telecommunications Seminar). According to Campbell, ILETS was originally founded by the FBI and allowed experts from different countries, not just European, to meet every year until 1997. The main countries involved were Norway, the US and Canada, as well as Australia and New Zealand.

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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