The European Union is considering launching a full-scale investigation into whether the US National Security Agency (NSA) is abusing its massive and highly advanced surveillance network to spy on government and private groups around the world.
The NSA's Cold War-vintage global spying system, code-named Echelon, consists of a worldwide network of clandestine listening posts capable of intercepting electronic communications such as e-mail, telephone conversations, faxes, satellite transmissions, microwave links and fibre-optic communications traffic, according to a report commissioned by the Scientific and Technological Options Committee of the European Parliament, which is the legislative body of the European Union. A summary of the report, which briefly discussed Echelon, was published last month.
"All e-mail, telephone and fax communications are routinely intercepted by the [NSA], transferring 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 . . . (United Kingdom)," according the report, "An Appraisal of the Technologies of Political Control."
Menwith Hill's Silkworth computer uses voice recognition, optical character recognition and data information engines to process the collected electronic signals and then forwards the processed messages to NSA, said Patrick S. Poole, deputy director of the Centre for Technology Policy at the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation, a Washington, DC-based think tank specialising in privacy issues. "These programs and computers transcend state-of-the-art, (and) in many cases they are well into the future," Poole said.
Originally, the US and the UK agreed to use the network to spy on the Soviet Union and communist states during the Cold War. But Echelon's mission in later years shifted to tracking terrorists and criminals and other nonmilitary organisations. Eavesdropping on nonmilitary groups has European lawmakers and privacy advocates worldwide concerned that NSA may be abusing its powers.
Simon Davies, director of Privacy International, a London-based civil liberties watchdog organisation, said the original report was only the first of several stages in the investigation, and the European Parliament is planning to fund an independent study of Echelon in the coming months. "There's enough interest (throughout the EU) to warrant a full-scale specific investigation (of Echelon)," Davies said.
Despite what Davies described as "an extraordinary amount of effort being made to silence inquiring minds," the European Parliament and various privacy advocates also plan to form a "conference of whistle-blowers" by March 1999 in an effort to "force these agencies to the table and to account for themselves," Davies said.
Eduard McVeigh, a spokesman for the European Parliament in London, said the committee has not yet decided what action to take in light of the report. "I get the impression they are not likely to do anything with it until after the European elections next June," McVeigh said. Still, several members of Parliament felt it was an urgent matter that requires further investigation, McVeigh said.
The privacy debate surrounding Echelon also has raised concerns in the United States, Poole said. "Apart from directing their ears toward terrorists and rogue states, Echelon is also being used for purposes well outside its original mission," he said. For example, Poole said, in the 1980s Echelon was used to intercept electronic communications of Senator Strom Thurmond (Republican, South Carolina), civilian political groups in Europe, Amnesty International and Christian ministries.