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French set their sights on Echelon

Hostility to Echelon, America's controversial electronic eavesdropping system with a base in Britain, is growing across Europe, reports Simon Davies of the Daily Telegraph

French lawyers and politicians are growing increasingly restless over the activities of the American National Security Agency's Echelon spy network, leading to unconfirmed reports of possible legal action against the British and American governments. The NSA maintains a base at Menwith in Yorkshire.

The controversial electronic eavesdropping system is capable of scanning a vast chunk of the telecommunications spectrum to detect key-words of interest to America. Legal experts said to be preparing a class action on behalf of civil rights groups say they have adequate evidence to establish that Echelon has breached French privacy law. One lawyer, Jean-Pierre Millet, told reporters last week: "You can bet that every time a French government minister makes a mobile telephone call, it is recorded. The simple fact that an attempt has been made to intercept a communication is against the law in France."

The activity comes ahead of next week's meeting of the European Parliament's Civil Liberties Committee, which has scheduled a debate on the implications of Echelon.

The committee will discuss a new European Commission report detailing the threats to commercial secrecy posed by the Echelon system. Interception Capabilities 2000 has been hailed as the first authoritative investigation for more than a decade into the NSA.

This report describes how Communications Intelligence agencies such as the NSA have obtained access to much of the world's international communications. These include the unauthorised interception of faxes, emails and telephone calls.

While many of the facts have been known to senior politicians responsible for defence, the report's conclusions have come as a surprise to many members of the European and national parliaments. Some have been stunned by the report's finding that Echelon has been at the centre of a covert global strategy of commercial espionage. The report states "there is wide-ranging evidence indicating that major governments are routinely utilising communications intelligence to provide commercial advantage to companies and trade". In short, America is using intelligence data to gain advantage in international trade.

The new report is the second in a series commissioned by the European Parliament. The first, An Assessment of the Technologies of Political Control, alleged that the NSA was routinely intercepting most of Europe's email and fax traffic. The subsequent furore motivated the parliament to investigate the claims in detail.

While the British Government has so far remained silent on the issue, a full debate in Brussels last year resulted in a shot being fired across the NSA's bows through a consensus resolution of all major parties. However, no action was taken by the parliament.

Echelon has sparked controversy across Europe and the United States. The Italian government has recognised potential constitutional implications, and last year commenced a judicial inquiry into Echelon. Meanwhile, the American Congress is scheduled to hold hearings on the possibility that Echelon has breached the constitutional privacy rights of Americans. Congress ordered the NSA to hand over documents relating to the system, but in an unprecedented move, the NSA refused, claiming attorney/client privilege.

Source: Daily Telegraph

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