U.S.-British Cyber-Spy System Puts European Countries on Edge

Matthew Gaylor (freematt@coil.com)
Fri, 20 Aug 1999 10:17:35 -0400

Date: Fri, 20 Aug 1999 15:07:47 +0300 (EEST) From: Zombie Cow <waste@zor.hut.fi>
To: freematt@coil.com
Subject: U.S.-British Cyber-Spy System Puts European Countries on Edge X-URL: http://jya.com/usa-rfa.htm
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Monday, August 16, 1999

Digital Nation
U.S.-British Cyber-Spy System Puts European Countries on Edge By GARY CHAPMAN

OVERETO, Italy--It felt like there was a new Cold War developing at a conference here last week on computers, networks and international security, only this time the adversaries are the United States and Europe and the field of conflict is cyberspace.

The revelation last year about the collaborative electronic eavesdropping system developed by the U.S. National Security Agency and British intelligence agencies, a system known as Echelon, has become a huge topic of discussion in Europe.

The Echelon system can and does intercept "all e-mail, telephone and fax communications" in Europe, according to a report delivered last year to the European Parliament, and further investigations revealed that this capability also covers Australia, New Zealand and other countries.

The report's author, Steve Wright, director of Omega Foundation, a British human rights group, was here last week and summarized his investigation into Echelon.

"The Echelon system forms part of the U.K.-U.S.A. system but unlike many of the electronic spy systems developed during the Cold War, Echelon is designed for primarily nonmilitary targets: governments, organizations and businesses in virtually every country," states Wright's report, "An Appraisal of Technologies of Political Control," (available on the Web at http://cryptome.org/stoa-atpc.htm).

The report was prepared for the European Parliament's Scientific and Technological Options Assessment (STOA) group. Its release in early 1998 shocked European government leaders. * * * The chief piece of news that angered European politicians and business executives was the allegation that Echelon data intercepts are used for economic intelligence, and that the U.S. and British governments pass on this information to private companies for competitive advantage in trade talks, financial deals or contract negotiations, Simon Davies, head of Privacy International in London and another participant in the conference, wrote in an Aug. 4 commentary piece in The Times.

This is a particularly sensitive and explosive allegation, as Britain is a member of the European Union and therefore must abide by EU laws and treaties, one of which, the Maastricht Treaty, is specifically aimed at leveling the playing field in EU commerce.

Also worrisome is that the "special relationship" between the U.S. and British governments could allow each country's intelligence agency to rely on the other to circumvent national privacy laws, according to Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington. When the National Security Agency is prohibited from certain kinds of domestic surveillance, it may get the information from its British counterparts, and vice versa.

The STOA report produced a firestorm of controversy in Europe, but got very little attention in the United States, something Wright attributes to the fact that throughout 1998 the U.S. news media was saturated with the scandal in the White House. The European Parliament took the unprecedented step of holding hearings on Echelon in September of last year, just about the time our impeachment hearings were getting underway. * * *

A common response among many people confronted with the news about Echelon is incredulity--how on earth could any organization intercept all the telephone calls, e-mail and faxes of several hundred million people? How could that volume of information be processed or analyzed? Immense banks of intelligence agency supercomputers search for keywords that are part of electronic "dictionaries," according to reports on Echelon. These dictionaries include words or phrases that are of interest to intelligence analysts, and are used to filter the Niagara-like flow of data into the system.

Of particular concern to civil liberties and privacy activists is that these digital dictionaries reportedly contain the names of organizations such as Amnesty International and Greenpeace. A great deal about Echelon and electronic surveillance in Europe is unknown, because the NSA is one of the most secretive organizations in the world--it was once known as "No Such Agency." The British government, with its Official State Secrets Act, has even more powers of secrecy than the U.S. government.

Consequently, the European Parliament and individual European governments are demanding that U.S. and British intelligence agencies hand over information about Echelon and implement mechanisms of accountability.

In the U.S., an investigation into Echelon has been initiated by an unexpected critic: Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), one of the congressional leaders of the impeachment movement against President Clinton. Barr is apparently such a foe of the federal government that he is taking on the federal intelligence agencies, organizations not accustomed to being challenged by Republicans.

A member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Barr arranged for the panel to demand information on Echelon from the NSA, which, for the first time in its history, refused to turn over information and documents, citing attorney-client privilege. Barr is expected to initiate hearings on Echelon sometime in the near future. Ironically enough, Barr's extreme conservative views and his well-known style of fiery rhetoric have alienated longtime advocates of civil liberties who might otherwise be supporters of this investigation. * * *

The prospect that all e-mail, faxes and telephone calls in Europe may be under surveillance has led to a significant increase in the market here for digital encryption products. But the U.S. government still seems intent on limiting the export of the strongest encryption techniques available. Both the House Intelligence Committee and the House Armed Services Committee recently reversed a trend toward relaxing encryption export controls and revised such legislation already passed in other House committees.

Thus from a European point of view, the U.S. government appears to be committed to spying on European citizens, companies and organizations, but is also bent on preventing Europeans from buying strong protections against such spying.

Organizations such as the NSA and Britain's MI5 were set up to provide intelligence on military adversaries, but there are relatively few of those left. The new domain of cyberspace has unlimited potential for surveillance and intelligence gathering, unless citizens intervene and demand democratic accountability of institutions left around from the Cold War. * * *

Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at gary.chapman@mail.utexas.edu.

Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved

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