European panel eyes Echelon espionage

The European Parliament Wednesday approved creation of a special temporary

committee to investigate allegations that the U.S.-backed Echelon satellite

information system is stealing European industrial secrets. Echelon is a

network of supercomputers and satellites run by the U.S. National Security

Agency with bases in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia

and New Zealand. It is capable of eavesdropping on electronic communications

in the form of faxes, telephone calls and e-mail.

The U.S. and U.K. governments have repeatedly denied that the system

is used for industrial espionage, saying that it was set up to fight terrorism,

money laundering and drug trafficking.

The system has particularly irritated the French, who Tuesday saw Jean-Pierre

Dintilhac, a French state prosecutor, launch a preliminary judicial investigation

to determine whether Echelon is compatible with French law.

Whether the rights and privacy of European citizens are being properly

protected from government intrusion by this system is one of the questions

facing the 36-member committee set up by the European Parliament. As part

of its year-long mandate, it will also consider whether encryption provides

adequate protection to guarantee privacy and how to make European Union

institutions better aware of the risks posed by such information-gathering

systems.

The committee will have no formal powers, At the end of its investigation,

it will issue recommendations for follow-up political or legislative initiatives.

These actions could, for example, involve the creation of a full-blown committee

of inquiry.

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