A French parliamentary enquiry has harshly criticised Britain for its involvement in the Echelon satellite surveillance system, which it denounces as a threat to individual liberty and commercial privacy.
Echelon is the codename for a surveillance network built by the UK and US at the onset of the Cold War in order to eavesdrop on international satellite communications. It is one part of a global surveillance effort that counts on cooperation from Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
The seven month investigation by the French parliament concludes that Echelon is routinely used to gather economic information and warns that it is open to abuse. The report says that the system may well be used by the nations that operate it to gain political and economic advantage against over other nations.
The report shows particular concern for the cosy relationship between the UK and US over Echelon and the effect that this may have on other European nations. "Echelon's mission is to monitor every message in the world," chairman of the inquiry Arthur Paecht told Guardian. "It is not improbable that the information collected is used for political and economic ends, even against certain NATO members."
Paecht urges the EU to help towards developing software that will secure communications but which is not designed in America. He also recommends that the EU draw up guidelines regulating surveillance of private communications. The report says that while many large firms already employ antisurveillance technologies such as encryption, smaller companies remain vulnerable.
The findings should, however, come as little surprise to France or to other EU member states. In March, former US CIA director James Woolsey acknowledged that the US gathers economic information using satellites. A questionable justification from Woolsey for this activity at the time was that European companies have a "national culture" of bribery and are the "principle offenders from the point of view of paying bribes in major international contracts in the world".
In the report France alleges that up to 55,000 British and American operatives have access to data gathered by Echelon's 120 spy satellites worldwide and that the system is able to process around three million electronic communications every minute.
Find out who's spying on you and how they're doing it in our exclusive Echelon News Special.
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