Report by the European Parliament press service on the plenary session in Strasbourg on 5 September 2001
Echelon spy system

Gerhard SCHMID (PES, D)
Report on the existence of a global system for the interception of private and commercial
communications (ECHELON interception system) (2001/2098(INI))
Doc.: A5-0264/2001 (large "pdf" file)

Procedure: Own-initiative report
Debate: 05.09.2001
Vote: 05.09.2001

Speaking on behalf of the Special Committee of Enquiry set up to investigate the Echelon Interception System, Gerhard SCHMID (PES, D) said the most fundamental conclusion of the committee was that such a system did indeed exist. It was, he said, controlled by the US and involved the UK which was also used for economic espionage. There was no evidence, he said, that such a system intercepted every single communication but it did have the capability to track faxes, telephone calls and e-mails. And, he continued, it was global in the sense that cooperation from countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand enabled it to operate on a world-wide basis. It was particularly effective in tracking communications in Africa and the Middle East. At the same time it was important to recognise that other countries operated similar intelligence gathering services but he had no objection against the aim of using such information to fight international crime, drug smuggling, the arms trade and terrorism. The problem was that it could violate privacy and indeed the European Convention on Human Rights. The question was how to balance the two and here he felt economic espionage clearly violated ECHR case law. The US, he said, countered that EU companies indulged in bribery to obtain contracts. Nevertheless, this response could not be justified, he felt, questioning why there was no US legislation to outlaw such activities. There was, he said, a clear need for an international agreement to protect privacy.

For Council, Annemie NEYTS-UYTTEBROECK recognised the work of the committee, the investigation and the problems it posed for respect of human rights and privacy. Council had already organised one meeting to discuss the EU's role here and another one was planned for December. Using intelligence gathering systems for commercial advantage could not be justified, she felt, especially when it involved the abuse of privacy. The aim now was to promote dialogue and indeed update existing legislation relating to data protection. Parliament's role was to ensure democratic scrutiny and this she strongly supported.

For the EPP-ED, Christian Ulrik von BOETTICHER (D) underlined the problem facing the committee in its investigations in the sense that people were reluctant to give evidence. Nevertheless, progress had been made and while those suffering under Echelon had been persuaded to talk to the committee, they were not in fact prepared to go to court, thus it proved impossible to put together a cast iron legal case. Espionage seemed to have been justified in the national interest, he added but the US had used commercial data for other purposes, in other words to help US companies obtain contracts.

For the PES, Jan Marinus WIERSMA (NL) endorsed the findings of the committee, adding that similar systems were in existence in other countries. He was not however sure that there was indeed large scale industrial espionage. The choice for the UK, he said, was quite simply whether it wanted now to cooperate with its European partners in intelligence gathering exercises or maintain its transatlantic links. He did not think it was possible to do both.

Colette FLESCH (L), for the Liberals, too was worried about the economic espionage angle and the implication for citizens' rights. She too urged compliance with ECHR provisions relating to privacy.

Patricia McKENNA (Greens/EFA, Dublin) while too welcoming the report and its conclusions, establishing that Echelon does in fact exist, felt that the committee had drawn back or failed to take the necessary political conclusions. To make matters worse, the EU now wanted to set-up its own system, she said. For Mrs McKenna it was the civil liberties rather than the industrial espionage issue that was the most worrying. As she put it, police forces were cooperating in establishing surveillance systems to monitor such groups as anti-capitalist protestors who had the right to demonstrate peacefully. Freedom should be respected, she felt.

For Giuseppe DI LELLO FINUOLI (EUL/NGL, I), the question was how to establish a proper response for safeguarding privacy and human rights' interests in the face of such a system. The UK should respect its obligation under the EU Treaty, he added.

Jean-Charles MARCHIANI (UEN, F) was another speaker to be concerned about violations of the EU Convention on Human Rights and he added companies such as Siemens, Airbus and Phillips had suffered as a result of industrial espionage. He took up the issue of what he felt was the 'Anglo Saxon majority' in the European Parliament. There was no answer to the question of what sanctions should be imposed on the UK for its complicity, he said.

Maurizio TURCO (TGI, I) was too concerned about what he felt was a lack of follow-up in pursuing countries such as the UK and Germany for their involvement in the system. To suggest that commercial documents should be properly encrypted was hardly an effective response, he felt.

Bastiaan BELDER (EDD, NL), on the other hand, felt that the committee had not revealed proof of a large-scale operation involving industrial espionage. More international cooperation was needed to define the limits of security interests.

Alain KRIVINE (EUL/NGL, F) complained about his treatment on Parliament's Delegation to the USA where he said he was virtually considered as a terrorist. It was no answer to say that Member States such as France also operated such systems. What was needed was an overall global approach.

Robert EVANS (PES, London), however, took the view that the report showed that many of the early allegations in the press were wildly exaggerated and 'fanciful' but very few had been substantiated by the report, he said. As to the UK's role, he pointed out that all states operated national security systems and indeed, he cited the case of the US helping Spain to counter terrorism as a recent example of international cooperation here. The UK fully complied with ECHR commitments in this area and such activities were subject to UK Law.

Replying to the debate, Commissioner Erkki LIIKANEN, while explaining that intelligence gathering did not come within the Commission's remit of responsibilities, did say that he had no reason to question the findings of the Committee. He underlined the Commission's concern for respect of human rights and privacy and that the kind of activities related in the report almost certain made individual EU citizens feel 'uneasy'. The question now was to find a proper and proportionate response. In this sense, he emphasised the Commission's support for including the EU Charter in the full body of EU Treaties. As to Echelon itself, he emphasised that national intelligence gathering was a responsibility for individual Member States' national governments but any reference to commercial espionage would be affected by EU data protection provisions.

Furthermore, he said the increased provision of fibreoptic cables offered increased possibilities for interception systems. The Commissioner then dwelt at some length on technical progress being made under EU research programmes for dealing with the protection of communication systems. In this sense, he underlined the importance of providing information for individual citizens and small firms and the Commission's move to combat cybercrime. There was a need to raise awareness here, he emphasised. The Commission's aim was to develop a European Information Security Policy. The trust of EU businesses was crucial, he said.


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