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The Echelon Affair: A History of the Investigation and its significance today

Written by Iolanda Mombelli


The Echelon system … unlike many of the electronic spy systems developed during the cold war, is designed for primarily non-military targets: governments, organisations and businesses, in virtually every country. The Echelon system works by indiscriminately intercepting very large quantities of communication and then siphoning out what is valuable using artificial intelligence aids. It was with these few lines, part of a 100-page STOA document (PE166.499) published in 1998, that one of the most engaging, intriguing and famous spy stories in the history of the European Parliament began.

But what was Echelon?

Echelon was an interception system for national and international communication in which five countries were involved: USA, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand (other countries also participated, with a less important role).  The five countries were linked by a system of international treaties and shared information, dictionaries of key words, technologies, etc. and ran 120 satellites for collecting information.

The European Parliament’s reaction

Once the communication and interception networks were discovered, members of all the EP political groups reacted with written and oral questions to the Commission and the Council and requested the creation of a committee to study the implications of this interception system for European countries, citizens and private companies. Through the analysis of scientific research, several hearings of experts, and missions abroad, the temporary committee, created in 2000, was able to confirm the existence of the Echelon system. They expressed clear recommendations to the Commission and the Council to protect the European Union against this espionage.

What is the situation today?

The Echelon Affair: A History of the Investigation and Lessons for todayAfter over 16 years, countries and citizens still face problems related to increasingly efficient and widespread intelligence systems. Terms related to data protection have become familiar to citizens and institutions and scandals involving information leaks are high on the public agenda.

In such a context, the Historical Archives Unit has prepared a study entitled: “L’affaire Echelon : Les travaux du Parlement européen sur le système global d’interception, 1998-2002” (EN version will be available later in November), in the European Parliament History Series, based on the documents preserved in the EP’s Historical Archives. The study looks back over the early examples of Parliament’s investigative powers and clearly demonstrates its involvement in the protection of citizens’ personal data.

A conference will be held to mark the publication of the European Parliament Historical Archives’ Study – “The Echelon Affair. The EP and the global interception system 1998-2002”, on 5 November 2014 at 6.00 pm, in the EPRS Library Reading Room – Altiero Spinelli Building – ASP 05D. Guest speakers will be

  • Carlos Coelho, MEP, former Chair of the Temporary Committee on Echelon
  • Claude Moraes, MEP, Chair of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs
  • Duncan Campbell, Investigative Journalist
  • David Lowe, former Head of Unit of the Secretariat of the Temporary Committee on Echelon
  • Emilio De Capitani, Visiting Professor, University of Naples L’Orientale

For further information on the study, on the presentation and on the documents of the Temporary committee on the Echelon interception system kept by the EP Historical Archives, please contact

About Historical Archives

The Historical Archives maintain and make available to the public the documents related to the legislative and political activity of the European Parliament from 1952 until the 6th parliamentary term (2004-2009).


3 thoughts on “The Echelon Affair: A History of the Investigation and its significance today

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    Posted by google | November 24, 2014, 07:08
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    Posted by Phoenix | October 27, 2014, 15:27


  1. Pingback: Historical Archives – 2014 at a glance | European Parliamentary Research Service - December 23, 2014

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