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Spies like US
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- Date: Fri, 9 Jan 1998 22:37:23 -0500
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A European Commission report warns that the United States has
developed an extensive network spying on European citizens and we
should all be worried. Simon Davies reports
[INLINE] Cooking up a charter for snooping
A GLOBAL electronic spy network that can eavesdrop on every telephone,
email and telex communication around the world will be officially
acknowledged for the first time in a European Commission report to be
delivered this week.
The report - Assessing the Technologies of Political Control - was
commissioned last year by the Civil Liberties Committee of the
European Parliament. It contains details of a network of
American-controlled intelligence stations on British soil and around
the world, that "routinely and indiscriminately" monitor countless
phone, fax and email messages.
It states: "Within Europe all email telephone and fax communications
are routinely intercepted by the United States National Security
Agency transfering all target information from the European mainland
via the strategic hub of London then by satellite to Fort Meade in
Maryland via the crucial hub at Menwith Hill in the North York moors
in the UK."
The report confirms for the first time the existence of the secretive
Until now, evidence of such astounding technology has been patchy and
anecdotal. But the report - to be discussed on Thursday by the
committee of the office of Science and Technology Assessment in
Luxembourg - confirms that the citizens of Britain and other European
states are subject to an intensity of surveillance far in excess of
that imagined by most parliaments. Its findings are certain to excite
the concern of MEPs.
"The ECHELON system forms part of the UKUSA system (see 'Cooking up a
charter for snooping') but unlike many of the electronic spy systems
developed during the Cold War, ECHELON is designed primarily for
non-military targets: governments, organizations and businesses in
virtually every country.
"The ECHELON system works by indiscriminately intercepting very large
quantities of communications and then siphoning out what is valuable
using artificial intelligence aids like MEMEX to find key words".
According to the report, ECHELON uses a number of national
dictionaries containing key words of interest to each country.
For more than a decade, former agents of US, British, Canadian and New
Zealand national security agencies have claimed that the monitoring of
electronic communications has become endemic throughout the world.
Rumours have circulated that new technologies have been developed
which have the capability to search most of the world's telex, fax and
email networks for "key words". Phone calls, they claim, can be
automatically analysed for key words.
Former signals intelligence operatives have claimed that spy bases
controlled by America have the ability to search nearly all data
communications for key words. They claim that ECHELON automatically
analyses most email messaging for "precursor" data which assists
intelligence agencies to determine targets. According to former
Canadian Security Establishment agent Mike Frost, a voice recognition
system called Oratory has been used for some years to intercept
The driving force behind the report is Glyn Ford, Labour MEP for
Greater Manchester East. He believes that the report is crucial to the
future of civil liberties in Europe.
"In the civil liberties committee we spend a great deal of time
debating issues such as free movement, immigration and drugs.
Technology always sits at the centre of these discussions. There are
times in history when technology helps democratise, and times when it
helps centralise. This is a time of centralisation. The justice and
home affairs pillar of Europe has become more powerful without a
corresponding strengthening of civil liberties."
The report recommends a variety of measures for dealing with the
increasing power of the technologies of surveillance being used at
Menwith Hill and other centres. It bluntly advises: "The European
Parliament should reject proposals from the United States for making
private messages via the global communications network (Internet)
accessible to US intelligence agencies."
The report also urges a fundamental review of the involvement of the
American NSA (National Security Agency) in Europe, suggesting that
their activities be either scaled down, or become more open and
Such concerns have been privately expressed by governments and MEPs
since the Cold War, but surveillance has continued to expand. US
intelligence activity in Britain has enjoyed a steady growth
throughout the past two decades. The principal motivation for this
rush of development is the US interest in commercial espionage. In the
Fifties, during the development of the "special relationship" between
America and Britain, one US institution was singled out for special
The NSA, the world's biggest and most powerful signals intelligence
organisation, received approval to set up a network of spy stations
throughout Britain. Their role was to provide military, diplomatic and
economic intelligence by intercepting communications from throughout
the Northern Hemisphere.
The NSA is one of the shadowiest of the US intelligence agencies.
Until a few years ago, it existence was a secret and its charter and
any mention of its duties are still classified. However, it does have
a Web site (www.nsa.gov:8080) in which it describes itself as being
responsible for the signals intelligence and communications security
activities of the US government.
One of its bases, Menwith Hill, was to become the biggest spy station
in the world. Its ears - known as radomes - are capable of listening
in to vast chunks of the communications spectrum throughout Europe and
the old Soviet Union.
In its first decade the base sucked data from cables and microwave
links running through a nearby Post Office tower, but the
communications revolutions of the Seventies and Eighties gave the base
a capability that even its architects could scarcely have been able to
imagine. With the creation of Intelsat and digital telecommunications,
Menwith and other stations developed the capability to eavesdrop on an
extensive scale on fax, telex and voice messages. Then, with the
development of the Internet, electronic mail and electronic commerce,
the listening posts were able to increase their monitoring capability
to eavesdrop on an unprecedented spectrum of personal and business
This activity has been all but ignored by the UK Parliament. When
Labour MPs raised questions about the activities of the NSA, the
Government invoked secrecy rules. It has been the same for 40 years.
Glyn Ford hopes that his report may be the first step in a long road
to more openness. "Some democratically elected body should surely have
a right to know at some level. At the moment that's nowhere".
See also in this week's issue: Pretty good Phil bounces back (a
report on the consolidation of the reputation of Phil Zimmermann,
creator of PGP).
14 October 1997: Europe's private parts to expand