European Commission plays down fears over US snooping

Officials react to claims from cipher expert that US could have broken European Commission encryption codes

Officials on Monday played down comments from a British communications expert suggesting that the US intelligence service has been spying on the European Commission -- Europe's government body.

Details of a statement from Desmond Perkins, a senior official for the commission's cipher unit, were revealed in the French newspaper Liberation last Friday. In a hearing held in February, Perkins was reported to have revealed that the US has access to the encryption system used to protect European Union communications.

Perkins' testimony implied that the US routinely inspects the European Commission's encryption system. "I have always had very good contacts with the NSA in Washington, and they usually check our systems to see that they are being well looked after and not being misused," he said.

Representatives of the Commission have since denied any links with the NSA, and rejected the possibility that the US could have broken European codes.

The European Commission's cipher department encrypts confidential diplomatic messages sent around the globe. The incident will recharge paranoia over the extent to which the US intelligence services spy on foreign businesses, diplomats and citizens.

Details of Perkins' remarks were made available to the European Parliament's Temporary Echelon Committee, which is charged with investigating allegations that the US uses a satellite network -- code named Echelon -- to spy on international commercial communications to gain a competitive business advantage.

"You have got to remember... that the Americans read everything, no matter what is going on inside here, they read everything with their satellites lined up," Perkins added, apparently referring to the Echelon satellite surveillance network.

A statement from the European Commission says that Perkins' words have been misunderstood. It denies that the US has access to Commission encryption or could decode its messages.

"Mr Perkins did not intend to suggest that through these contacts the NSA or any other US authorities received any classified information about Commission transmissions or about codes used to encrypt them," says a statement from the Commission. "The Agency listens electronically worldwide to open and coded communications. This, however, does NOT mean that the NSA can actually decipher everything that they intercept," the statement said.

The Commission uses two cipher systems, called Savil, for highly classified documents, and Cryptofax, for less sensitive ones. It says that its communications systems are audited by the national security agencies of four member states: France, Germany, Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

The statement said that in 1991 German electronics manufacturer Seimens was asked by the NSA to provide details of a cipher system designed for use by the European Commission, although it did not comply with the request.

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