Echelon: Is anyone bothered?

Germany voices concerns over Echelon and wonders who is listening...
Written by Susanne Rieger, Contributor

Like France, Germany is concerned that Echelon bases are being used to monitor her business dealings. ZDNet Germany's News Editor Susanne Rieger talks to surveillance expert, Erich Schmidt-Eenboom about German concerns, including the charge that Britain is spying on her European neighbour.

ZDNet: The Echelon worldwide surveillance system is no fantasy. But even the latest report from the European Parliament hasn't proved its existence. Why has the public been so slow to respond to this?

Schmidt Eenboom: The problem has not been been publicly addressed because of a lack of interest. The parties involved have nothing to say unless, like the Green party, they are formed by civil rights activists. They simply have other interests, it's not a priority. The free-speakers -- the ones concerned about privacy -- are the only ones with the voice at the moment.

ZDNet: The main peace and civil rights movements have fallen apart on this. A few very small groups, in Bad Aibling and in Rosenheim, continue to deal locally with Echelon matters. But compared to similar groups in countries like Japan, the ones in Germany are very discrete. Why is that?

Schmidt Eenboom: For the wider public, the first concern is: "Does this concern me privately?"

When people hear that these surveillance measures are aimed mainly at organised crime and businesses, they lose interest. At the moment this is a story that only interests the media.

ZDNet: Following a visit to the Bad Aibling military base in the second week of June, Inspectors sent on behalf of Parliament's secret services stated that no economic espionage was being carried out against German businesses from there.

How credible is this statement?

Schmidt Eenboom: It is absolutely correct. As far as I know, the antannae and satellites in Bad Aibling are now directed at Switzerland and Lichtenstein where there is more to be uncovered about secret bank accounts and money laundering. German businesses, however, like at the beginning of the nineties, are under British surveillance.

ZDNet: Various enquiries about Echelon have been made within the Bundestag (German Parliament). One by the PDS - Partei der demokratischen Sozialismus (Social Democrats) and another at the beginning of the year by the FDP - Frei demokratische Partei (Liberals). Why have they not been investigated?

Schmidt Eenboom: they simply wanted to gain profile. It isn't really in anyone's interest to make the facts known. The Americans simply swear to silence for fear of jeopardising their relationship with Europe.

Within the United States, however, they recently had to fight various civil rights groups (Violent protests took place at the World Economic Summit in Seattle, December).

ZDNet: At the moment two proposals are being discussed at the European Parliament. One long-term and one temporary committee in charge of investigating Echelon and commercial espionnage. Do you think the motion will be passed or will the decision be postponed again?

Schmidt Eenboom: The committee will probably be formed but is unlikely to achieve much. After the STOA-report on Echelon activities was made public, Ex-EU-commissioner Martin Bangemann stated that if protests took place against surveillance activities, the relationship between Europe and the United States would be badly damaged -- a relationship that is already sufficiently difficult to maintain.

At the moment the main interest revolves around surveillance techniques. In Great-Britain two laws/bills have already been passed and set the example for a number of other countries such as India, Russia and Switzerland. But the European Union also wants to move forward in the fight against crime and therefore has granted the European police, Europol, partial immunity to the new legislation. In case of violation, officials are no longer forced to appear before the National court of law. Enfopol is a sort of European FBI.

ZDNet: It sounds alarming. Are you worried about the future?

Schmidt Eenboom: No, as long as there's a democratic infrastructure and some form of supervision, I have no reason to worry.

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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