A global telephone-tapping service dubbed Echelon has been intercepting messages and conversations since 1978, according to the testimony of Margaret Newsham, a former U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) software and systems programmer.
Newsham is one of four former government intelligence officers who contributed to a report on Echelon to be released Wednesday by the European Parliament. In addition to giving the most compelling evidence yet of the existence of the spy network, the report also argued that the U.S. has turned Echelon to the benefit of American companies since the break-up of the Soviet Union.
While working at the largest NSA listening station in Europe at Menwith Hill, in the North of England, in 1978 Newsham established that a telephone conversation conducted by U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond was being intercepted, she said in the report. Newsham worked for the NSA between 1974 and 1984, developing software programs called Silkworth and Sire for the computers that link to the Echelon network.
The report lacks hard evidence of industrial espionage. "It is frequently maintained that Echelon has been used in this way, but no such case has been substantiated," the report said.
However, the document listed several examples of where intelligence officers are believed to have interfered in a commercial contract. It claimed that European aircraft maker Airbus had its telephone lines tapped while it was negotiating a US$6 billion contract with the government and national airline of Saudi Arabia in 1994.
The European Parliament committee leading the investigation into Echelon concluded that the scope of the global spying network is limited mainly to communications transmitted by satellite, so a majority of telecommunication signals distributed terrestrially in Europe cannot be tapped.
"Echelon states have access to only a very limited proportion of cable and radio communications, and, owing to the large numbers of personnel required, can analyze only a limited proportion of those communications," it said. Echelon was set up by the U.S. together with the U.K., Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
Despite the global network's limitations, the European Parliament said it believes the right to privacy of European citizens and companies is inadequately protected. It claims that by eavesdropping in Europe the U.S. is acting in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), and that the U.K. and Germany, two of the countries from where NSA officers listen in to communications, should force the U.S. to comply with this convention.
The European Parliament also recommended that all e-mail messages should be encrypted, and called for national governments and the European Union as a whole to "support projects aimed at developing user-friendly open-source encryption software, as this is the only way of guaranteeing that no back doors are built into programs."