Echelon: Government spying breeds business distrust

Businesses operating in a growing atmosphere of paranoia and distrust are beginning to demand increased security measures to protect against industrial surveillance
Written by Will Knight, Contributor

European computer security experts disclose that, just as more concrete information about the activities of satellite spying system Echelon begins to emerge with reports to the European Union, businesses outside Britain are asking for increased security measures to protect against spying.

Duncan Campbell's Scientific and Technical Options Assessment (STOA) April 2000 report to the European Union entitled Interception Capabilities 2000 states that those governments implicated in Echelon routinely monitor commercial communications. This report also states that in the US a process was developed "whereby NSA data could be used to support commercial and economic interests."

Security expert Christoff Zilstorff of Danish network security firm LASAT reveals that companies are becoming increasingly concerned about the work of surveillance networks such as Echelon.

"Lots of companies have contacted us about this. Echelon has been debated in the Danish press a great deal," he says. "The Danish and German secret service is recommending that companies protect themselves using encryption on networks."

A spokeswoman for GCHQ, the British government's intelligence base credited with operating Echelon in cooperation with the NSA, concedes that the secretive nature of its operations can lead to considerable hype as well as mistrust.

"There seems to be a fascination with 'secrecy' and the 'intelligence world' which results in a lot of speculation about the work of the agencies. We have little option but to remain tight-lipped about our work. We recognise that by choosing to neither confirm nor deny stories -- however fanciful -- about us, that they remain effectively unchallenged. But this is the price for maintaining national security."

It seems, however, that this so-called climate of paranoia concerning industrial surveillance is infiltrating major firms in Europe and causing them to think about protecting themselves against Echelon.

When asked if he was aware of these concerns a member of a Swedish computer security company, who asked not to be named, said, "Yes, and I think they should be concerned."

British security consultant Ian Johnston-Bryden of Firetrench Security reinforces this view, commenting: "Undoubtedly the majority of state espionage is economically directed."

When pushed on this issue GCHQ does admit that there are economic motives behind its intelligence work but says that industrial espionage is out of the question.

"The Government has a duty to protect the country against adverse developments overseas that might have grave and damaging consequences for the nation's economic wellbeing," says a spokeswoman. "This does not mean intelligence gathering on behalf of UK companies, let alone those of any other country."

It is clear that the current international political climate does nothing to reinforce the position that governmental surveillance is used purely to ensure national security. Director of Cyber Rights & Cyber Liberties, Yaman Akdenis, explains why many companies may feel they are the most obvious targets for government surveillance.

"What are the real threats?", he asks. "Who are governments worried about? Is it animal liberation groups and environmental groups? There must be some sort of industrial espionage to justify this sort of surveillance network."

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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