EPRSLibrary By / November 12, 2014

Summary: Conference on the Echelon affair

Written by Kristina Svobodová A conference was held on 5 November to mark the publication of a study by the…

© European Parliament
©  European Parliament
© European Parliament

Written by Kristina Svobodová

A conference was held on 5 November to mark the publication of a study by the European Parliament Historical Archives – “The Echelon Affair. The EP and the global interception system 1998-2002″. Several guest speakers, who were actually involved in the investigation of the Echelon affair, attended to give their perspective of the affair and subsequent developments in this major surveillance scandal.

Wilhelm Lehmann and Iolanda Mombelli of the EP’s Historical Archives outlined the publication’s format, according to key moments in the investigation. The impetus for the publication is the ongoing debate on the necessity for data protection, a debate enlivened (to put it mildly) by Edward Snowden’s revelations in the recent NSA affair.

‘Five eyes’ surveillance network

British investigative journalist Duncan Campbell, who revealed existence of the Echelon surveillance program in 1988, illustrated the scale of this program aimed at non-military organizations. The program itself connected five English speaking agencies, the so-called ‘five eyes’, who between them spied on: 30 third party countries, 90 commercial partners, more than 100 embassy surveillance sites and 42 civil satellite interception sites. Although the interception range was massive there were some weak points – low technical capabilities of the program or lack of data selectivity being the most obvious. Also the amount of data harvesting was obviously underestimated by Echelon. Duncan mentioned that the interception capabilities of the program in 2014 are at zero point.

Temporary Committee on the Echelon Interception

Two members of the temporary committee on Echelon, MEP Carlos Coelho, former Chair of the Temporary Committee and Mr David Lowe, former Head of Unit of the Secretariat of the Temporary Committee, gave the audience an overview of the Committee’s work, purely focusing on the Echelon investigation, and its results. Mr Coelho mentioned three key questions arising from the fall of the Berlin wall, which made an adequate response from the EP necessary. The questions were: ‘Can the US change spying system targets from a military orientation to non-military?’, and ‘Can the US spy on citizens regardless of their rights?’; and also, ‘Can a European country spy on another European country?’. The answer to all these questions was, alarmingly, ‘yes’. Although the work of the Committee was successful and a final report was issued in 2001, their work was not without difficulty. Mr Coelho and Mr Lowe mentioned communication problems with the Bush administration, which refused to meet with them, even though meetings were scheduled in advance. According to the speakers, the final report deserved much more attention from the public than it had actually had and the importance of this topic continues to rise. The reality we face today is much worse than it was 14 years ago, as the NSA affair shown us.

Democratic oversight mechanism is a key thing

Emilio De Capitani, professor at University of Naples, who cooperated on the Echelon report, mentioned that every person has a right to see what organizations and governments are doing without being spied on. He also pointed out that EU countries have to cooperate because they share the same experience and principle of solidarity. MEP Claude Moraes, Chair of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, regards the Echelon enquiry as a model and one of the finest European Parliament has completed to date. The mission was successful but the Echelon report remains one of the EP’s most underestimated reports. A common democratic oversight mechanism is necessary as Mr. Moraes emphasized in his speech.

‘The Echelon Affair: The EP and the global interception system 1998-2002’ tells the story of the Temporary Committee, whose work was launched following the report produced by Campbell in 1999 for the Parliament’s STOA (Scientific and Technological Options Assessment) panel.

It has already been published in French and the English version is due to be available later in November.

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  • Please, I’d like to add something. While the EU or whoever solve this affair I use it for promotion. For instance, there is an Echelon station in Gibraltar covering that area so the messages sent via social media there will enjoy an important spread. Having this into account, it’s important to adjust the content of the messages. The rivalry and collaboration among different government agencies in Europe doesn’t help to get the best performance although the area of influence is global, as far as you know.

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