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Europe stumbles on Echelon spy network

The European Parliament published its damning report on Echelon last summer, but public apathy and institutional bureaucracy are stifling further action
Written by Matthew Broersma, Contributor

Nearly seven months after the European Parliament adopted a report that recognised the existence of Echelon, an international spy system designed to listen in on private and commercial communications, experts say that little has been accomplished towards dealing with the issue.

Privacy experts would like to see limits placed on systems like Echelon, or at least for such spy networks to be made accountable -- a need which has only been strengthened by the terrorist attacks of 11 September and the advent of the international "war on terror". But taking action is made difficult partly by the public's acclimatisation to a world where everyone, including the government, can be assumed to be listening in, say observers.

"The real issue is the maturing of public perception," says Simon Davies, director of UK-based Privacy International. "Now it's conventional wisdom, people know they're being spied on. Two years ago it was stunning news. But because people haven't heard personal horror stories... to some extent the issue has passed into legend."

The Echelon investigation was originally sparked by a 1997 EU report on the Appraisal of the Technology of Political Control, written by Steve Wright of the Omega Foundation. In the UK the story was picked up by The Daily Telegraph, which ran an article by Davies on Wright's paper, and conveyed to the British public the notion that their telephone, email and wireless communications were being routinely intercepted and scanned by a US-controlled intelligence network.

By the time the EU's investigation was completed last year, however, the public had become somewhat used to such stories, according to Davies.

Indeed, the Echelon report -- accepted on 5 September, just days before the terrorist attacks -- refuted many of the media speculations on the extent of the system, by explaining its limitations. For example, the report found that Echelon relies heavily on satellite interceptions, even though only a small proportion of communications use satellite links. Limitations of manpower and the huge volume of traffic intercepted mean that Echelon can not boast of exhaustive coverage, the report said.

Echelon has "access to only a very limited proportion of cable and radio communications and can analyse an even more limited proportion of those communications," the report stated.

However, the report also hinted at the likely existence of other communications systems. "You can't overestimate the potential for those systems to create comprehensive surveillance over the entire communications perspective," says Davies.

However, Davies and other experts say that now the existence of Echelon is officially recognised, it may be possible to turn the debate towards making national security systems more accountable. Many have pointed out, for example, that for all its surveillance capabilities the US National Security Agency failed to prevent the 11 September attacks from taking place.

"Once MI5 or the NSA become a closed shop, and unaccountable, they become increasingly less efficient," Davies says. "That simply is unacceptable when dealing with the security of a nation."

At the same time, privacy experts warn that the urge to combat terrorism could lead to the erosion of personal liberties.

The Council of Europe, which includes nearly all European nations and counts the US, Japan and Canada as non-voting members, is discussing changes to the so-called "cybercrime treaty", which will address monitoring and decoding terrorist communications. Some fear the changes could place limits on encryption and increase electronic surveillance.

"It's not the solution to take American law and try to apply it to all the European countries," says David Nataf, a French lawyer who consulted on the Echelon report. "What's inside this cybercrime treaty is inspired by American laws, and I deplore it deeply."

Nataf argues the only real way to limit surveillance, which will take years to catch on, is the widespread use of encrypted communications -- that and continued awareness of how governments are exercising their powers.

"The answer is to be vigilant, and be aware that the government can be your enemy," Nataf said.

Who's watching you? Get the latest on spy networks such as Echelon and Carnivore, as well as privacy issues for companies and individuals alike, at ZDNet UK's Privacy News Section.

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