A EUROPEAN ECHELON?
by Florian RÃ¶tzer
After the terrorist attacks of 11 September, ECHELON, the American industrial espionage network, is no longer a subject of controversy; a member of the ECHELON Committee of the European Parliament continues to call for the safeguard of fundamental rights and does not think that encryption is a solution.
After the attacks of September 11, many states that had not adopted adequate measures have drawn up anti-terrorism bills that also involve increased powers of surveillance by the secret services; although the intelligence services have failed in the prevention of terrorist attacks, they are nevertheless considered an essential instrument against terrorism, an instrument that should be strengthened. At the same time, the rights of citizens are reduced, since security can naturally only be obtained at the price of sacrificing privacy and personal liberties.
After the terrorist attacks, as we know, there was an immediate call for "unlimited solidarity"; due to the reinforcement of domestic security, this naturally implies possible criticism and involves the interception of European citizens and industrial espionage on the part of the United States. Therefore, following the failure of the interception system and the consequent proposals for its improvement, ECHELON has once again become a topic of vital relevance.
Some members of the committee have also changed their views. In Parliamentary Magazine no. 131 of 14 January, the Italian MEP Maurizio Turco, the President of the Radicals elected on the Lista Emma Bonino and a member of the non-attached group, took the opportunity provided by an article published earlier by his Dutch colleague Jan Wiersma of the European Social-Democratic Party (ESDP) to repeat criticisms already expressed on the occasion of his minority-vote declaration on the final ECHELON report.
Wiersma sustained that the attacks on 11 September had pointed to the need for a worldwide surveillance of telecommunications. Before the attacks, on the other hand, attention had been focused on the dangers of ECHELON and of the other surveillance systems. At present there is a call for such systems to be perfected in view of the fact that they are thought to be an important instrument in the fight against terrorism. Turco disagrees, and rather mischievously, though rightly, criticises the inefficiency of surveillance systems such as ECHELON, which investigate intercepted communications automatically by using search engines. For Turco it is more important that the attacks should in no way suppress the right to privacy, which has finally been recognised as a fundamental right in the European Charter of Human Rights. In reality, as the ECHELON report itself had shown, surveillance measures which could be carried out in a legitimate manner on the basis of a broad concept of national security interests should be controlled democratically, and should be necessary, measured, proportionate, and limited in duration. The criteria of legitimacy must be accessible to citizens. A generalised form of surveillance, neither limited in duration nor targeted, as is the case with systems such as ECHELON, should be prohibited on the basis of the Charter ( Debate on the memorisation of communications data).
In his declaration on the final report, Turco had warned that Germany, Holland and France already possess the technological capacity "to filter intercepted data with search engines, systematically and randomly". Too little attention has been paid to the practice of interception within Europe. Turco also criticised the fact that in Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg, Spain and France parliamentary control of the secret services was insufficient, and that it was not explicitly recalled that Germany and Holland, at least, have surveillance systems which, like ECHELON, analyse intercepted information by means of search engines.
In reality, only the rapporteur of the committee, the German Social Democrat MEP Gerhard Schmid, had called attention in his premise to the fact that the BND (Bundesnachrichtendienstes - German Federal Information Service), by using key search concepts, intercepts satellite telecommunications from other countries and about other countries (see also:  Mit dem Staubsauger durch den Telekommunikationsverkehr - Hoovering the telecommunications traffic). Turco called for an evaluation of the juridical compatibility of the BND system with the European Charter of Human Rights since data had to be intercepted randomly for control and filtering. On the basis of German law, it has been made possible, through the second Schily anti-terrorism bill, to request information regarding connections and uses made from the telecommunications companies and from Internet providers, although only foreigners can be intercepted by the secret services.
This obviously protects German citizens, but means that all other European citizens can be intercepted without restriction by the German secret services. Turco points out that this does not only concern Germany, and that the secret services of all the Member States undoubtedly intercept the communications of foreign countries, and sometimes also of the "institutions, citizens or firms" of the other Member States, "often without authorisation and in the name of national security". According to the European Charter of Human Rights this should not be allowed.
In its final report on the ECHELON system, the committee had recommended in general terms that citizens and firms should protect themselves from interception by means of encryption, and that cryptography should be promoted at European level. Turco observes that this procedure leads only to the reinforcement of the techniques of encryption and decryption and other methods of avoiding encryption. Solutions of the conflict between security, surveillance and the protection of privacy must therefore be sought at a political level, and for this reason the democratic control of surveillance is vital. As well as this, the same rights should apply to all EU citizens and interception for reasons of state should obey the superior principle established by the Charter of Human Rights with regard to the protection of privacy.
As things stand Turcoâ€™s objections are not likely to win support. The ECHELON report claims that that EU should have established its own European intelligence service to respond to the superiority of the American secret services. A closer link in the exchange of information has been established with EUROPOL and ENFOPOL, but each Member State still seems to want to maintain the freedom to spy at will, also on the other EU countries, while the possibilities for surveillance of individual citizens have increased. For Turco, however, the fight against terrorism should not serve as a pretext for a "European ECHELON".
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