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Perhaps more appropriately to the world of James Bond than to the European Union, Echelon — an international spying network in which governments covertly cooperate to intercept global communications — is causing a stir in the European Parliament.

Governments rarely admit to the existence of networks like Echelon, which is a surveillance system run since 1947 by the secret services of the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand to intercept all global telecommunications. But there is momentum in the European Parliament toward finally bringing such systems to account. Since James Woolsey, a former director of the CIA, confessed in The Wall Street Journal that the system exists, but claimed it was only used to stop other countries bribing their way to lucrative contracts, denial is no longer a viable option. Many now recognize that a clear boundary between law enforcement and “national security” interception activity is essential to the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Despite European laws designed to protect civil liberties, many in the European Parliament were concerned that not enough was being done to protect citizens’ rights from the intrusion of Echelon. In France, an investigation has been launched into Echelon operations, and in the Netherlands a parliamentary committee has announced plans to hold hearings on the issue in the autumn. In the European Parliament, a vote was taken in July, at the initiative of the Socialist Group, to establish a temporary committee on the Echelon interception system.

The committee will have no powers to call on witnesses to testify or any right of access to confidential documents. Nevertheless, it will put the issue on the political agenda for the first time in more than half a century. I am convinced that investigating Echelon will quell some of the wilder speculation about the system and hopefully assess the real extent of surveillance activity and ways it can be subjected to democratic checks and balances. The committee will be instructed to determine whether and how such a system can be made compatible with community law, especially with the public’s right to be protected against secret-service activities.

Echelon is the most powerful intelligence-gathering organization in the world. Emerging from cooperative efforts during World War II to intercept radio transmissions, the continuous monitoring of escalating levels of telecommunications traffic has developed into a global system of “Big Brother” surveillance. Using telecommunication satellites, Echelon covertly interprets and processes international communications. Sophisticated “dictionary” computers tap into all telecommunications traffic — both domestic and international — indiscriminately.

Searches are conducted on all phone calls, faxes and e-mail using “keywords” and “voiceprints” to identify anything and anyone deemed interesting. The information is then transferred to the appropriate country and evaluated and used by governments accordingly.

It is necessary to solve the dilemma of allowing intelligence services like Japan’s “chobetsu” to monitor criminal activities such as terrorism, drug trafficking and organized crime without undermining basic civil rights. Clearly, police and security services must be able to keep up with organized criminals as their communications become increasingly sophisticated and international. But the use of Echelon and similar systems to monitor people indiscriminately, regardless of democratic control or accountability, is problematic. Police and security services should not be under political control, but they must be accountable to overarching principles. Politicians need to be able to control the categories of people monitored and scrutinize the contents of the dictionary. They must be in ultimate control.

It will not be easy for governments to take on the intelligence communities. But the impetus may come from less philanthropic sources. The investigative journalist, Duncan Campbell, in his report for the European Parliament, “Intercepting Capabilities 2000,” controversially contended that Echelon participants used their worldwide array of satellite devices to conduct industrial espionage and suggested “there are European enterprises in the situation of having unfair chances as a result of this system.” More recently he has estimated that this costs Japan and Europe $20 billion a year in lost contracts.

A further task of the committee will be to investigate whether encryption — prevention of the processing of message content and associated traffic — will defeat hostile communications-intelligence activity. As the EU puts the finishing touches to telecommunications policy, it will have to consider whether locking the doors to electronic snooping is in either national or international interests.

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