A leading British code expert has fuelled widespread concerns that Europe's most sensitive electronic communications are open to interception.Desmond Perkins, a senior official in the European Commission's cipher unit, has claimed that the superior technology deployed by US authorities means there is little Europe can do to prevent them listening in to its communications. Perkins was speaking at a recent EU hearing into Echelon, the name given to a US monitoring system which is allegedly able to eavesdrop on all European electronic traffic. Perkins claimed he showed EU systems to his US counterparts, thanks to his "cordial" relationship with the US National Security Agency (NSA), the organisation widely believed to operate Echelon. "You have got to remember the Americans read no matter what is going on inside here. They read everything with their satellites lined up," he said. EU officials have since gagged Perkins from making further comments on the issue, and have claimed that his evidence has been misunderstood. They say he only meant to point out that the US had the technology to intercept messages, but could not read them due to encryption. They stressed that the EU has been using a Siemens system for secure communications for over a decade. But Perkins' claims have been backed up by former high-ranking intelligence sources contacted by silicon.com. A former Nato encryption expert, who advised the EU on communications vulnerabilities in 1996, claimed that the Commission had been in the habit of sending completely unencrypted information, throwing into doubt the EU claims that it had been using the Siemens system for a decade. "They were worried in the mid 1990s that the US may have been picking up messages, but they did not introduce encryption until 1998," said the expert, who asked to remain anonymous. He added that US intelligence efforts would almost certainly be focussed on acquiring the keys needed to read intercepted messages - a process the former official hinted may have been made easier due to the long-established UK-US practice of exchanging classified codes. This is the kind of practice that could make sense of Perkins' claims of a "cordial" relationship with the US. Indeed, Perkins told the EU: "They usually check our systems to see they are being well-looked after and not being misused." Perkins' trust in the NSA is almost certainly misplaced, according to one former NSA employee. "I don't doubt it has been going on. I would also be fairly confident that they will have built back doors into any system they have been looking at," he said.