This week, the European Parliament published a report that finally offered official confirmation of the existence of Echelon: a shadowy worldwide electronic spying network set up by secret treaty in 1947. Echelon is a global spying network established by the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and run by the US that uses supercomputers to intercept messages and store them according to key words. Originally, eavesdropping, or signals intelligence (Signit as it is known in the trade) was ...read more
This week, the European Parliament published a report that finally offered official confirmation of the existence of Echelon: a shadowy worldwide electronic spying network set up by secret treaty in 1947. Echelon is a global spying network established by the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and run by the US that uses supercomputers to intercept messages and store them according to key words. Originally, eavesdropping, or signals intelligence (Signit as it is known in the trade) was targeted at military and diplomatic communications, but it has now switched to industrial and commercial targets, to campaigning organisations such as Greenpeace and Amnesty International, and to private individuals.
The MEP's report was prompted by claims that Echelon has been used for industrial espionage, although it has failed to find conclusive proof for such allegations. But of equal concern is the threat Echelon poses to organisations and to individual privacy. There is clear evidence for the surveillance of individual communications for key words that are then analysed sometimes out of context and stored in the US National Security Agency(NSA) computer system. While the report concludes that Echelon's surveillance system is limited because it is based on monitoring satellite communications that account for a small proportion of global communications, states involved in Echelon and others also have access to radio and cable communications and are developing eavesdropping systems to cover email and the internet. In the UK, for example, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000) allows authorities to monitor traffic through black boxes placed with ISPs, and gives the police authority to seize encryption keys. Last week, the London based group Statewatch published leaked documents saying the 15 EU member states are lobbying the European Commission to require service providers to keep all phone, fax, email and internet data in case they are needed for criminal investigations. Echelon is not only the tip of the iceberg, it seems, but its outing by MEPs may be little more than sour grapes: in the dirty game of global espionage, everyone is at it.
The power of states to intercept the communications of organisations and individuals has serious implications. Privacy, as the MEP's report makes clear, is a fundamental human right. Yet, although this is a right that we expect governments to respect and protect, they in fact continually breach it. Moreover, surveillance is an activity for which states remain fundamentally unaccountable, since the nature of their activities are clandestine, leaving citizens powerless to monitor and limit those very activities that represent a breach of their privacy. Individuals and groups thus effectively have no redress if that information is inaccurate, or being used for distorted ends. There is also a worrying disparity between the rights of citizens within a territorial or state jurisdiction, and their vulnerability to the power of global surveillance. NSA, for example, is limited to holding information on US citizens for one year, but can hold information on foreigners forever. This disparity is highly convenient when such surveillance systems are avowedly international in nature.
In Africa, many states are western clients, and will have access to the information Echelon can provide on opposition parties, civil liberty groups and NGOs, while their citizens do not even have the privilege of the protection of adequate domestic privacy law. With perhaps up to 40% of Echelons activities devoted to economic& espionage, the system also provides participating countries with an enormous, unfair advantage, since most developing states cannot afford the expertise and equipment to protect the privacy and security of their own networks against such intrusions.
Above all, surveillance by the state and its partners highlights the hypocrisy of governments of those in power. Elected by, and accountable to citizens, states owe us an obligation to be transparent. In reality, citizens are routinely denied freedom of information, while putting up with large scale, arbitrary and unaccountable intrusions into their own private and collective - lives. The EU report recommends we routinely encrypt all our online communications. Perhaps. But if Duncan Campbell, the investigative journalist, is correct in arguing that the Anglo-Americans secretly plan a global electronic spy system for the 21st century capable of listening in to most of us most of the time, it may take far more than encrypting our emails to protect ourselves from such hypocrisy, let alone to root it out.
The European Parliament Commission on Echelon:
Body of Secrets by James Bamford on NSA: http://www.salon.com/books/review/2001/04/25/nsa/
Duncan Campbell: http://www.gn.apc.org/duncan/
Campaign to close Menwith Hill, Yorkshire CND: http://www.gn.apc.org/cndyorks/mhs/