Report criticises high-tech US "spying"

The European Parliament has accepted the findings of a report officially confirming the existence of the global electronic...

The European Parliament has accepted the findings of a report officially confirming the existence of the global electronic surveillance network known as Echelon.

Some 367 members of the European Parliament voted to validate the report, while 159 voted against and 34 members abstained at the Parliament's plenary session in Strasbourg, France.

"This is a big step forward," said Olle Schmidt, a member of the European Parliament (MEP) from Sweden. "This is a damned important exercise in democracy. Now that a political body has revealed the existence of Echelon, we can put an end to the years of rumours upon the subject."

Published earlier this year, the report failed fully to produce hard evidence that the US was using the global telecommunication-tapping network to conduct industrial espionage. "It is frequently maintained that Echelon has been used in this way but no such case has been substantiated," the report stated.

However, the document lists several examples where intelligence officers are believed to have interfered in a commercial contract. It claims that the European aircraft-maker Airbus Industrie had its lines tapped in 1994 while negotiating a $6bn (£4.14bn) contract with the Saudi Arabian government and national airline.

The European Parliament committee leading the Echelon investigation concluded that the spying network was mainly limited to satellite communications, meaning that the majority of telecommunication signals distributed terrestrially in Europe were incapable of being intercepted.

"Echelon states have access to only a very limited proportion of cable and radio communications, and, owing to the large numbers of personnel required, can analyse only a limited proportion of those communications," the report stated.

Despite Echelon's limitations, the European Parliament believes that by reading and listening to European e-mails, faxes or telephone messages, the US is breaching the European Convention on Human Rights.

The report recommends that all e-mail messages should be encrypted prior to being sent, and calls for national European governments and the European Union to "support projects aimed at developing user-friendly open-source encryption software, as this is the only way of guaranteeing that no backdoors are built into programs".

Echelon was set up by the US with the help of Britain, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

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