French Govt Could Sue US & UK Over Echelon Spy Network

The British and US governments could be in line for a lawsuit from the French, if a report in today's Times newspaper is to be believed. The daily newspaper says that the French government is considering lawsuits on privacy grounds, alleging that the international Echelon superspy network monitored French companies, diplomats, and ministers.

The news follows on from reports earlier in the week in Le Monde, the French daily newspaper, that Jean-Pierre Millet, a lawyer, is preparing a civil lawsuit against the UK and US on behalf of French civil liberty organizations.

The Echelon network has been talked about in security circles for several years, but its existence was most recently confirmed in November, 1999, when the BBC reported that an Australian government official had confirmed the network actually existed.

At the time, the BBC reported that Bill Blick, Australia's inspector general of intelligence, confirmed that his country's Defence Signals Directorate forms part of the Echelon network.

"As you would expect there are a large amount of radio communications floating around in the atmosphere, and agencies such as the DSD collect those communications in the interests of their national security," Blick told the BBC.

Asked if information is then passed on to the US or the UK, Blick replied that "in certain circumstances" it was.

The BBC report followed hard on the heels of an attempt on Oct. 22 this year to swamp the Echelon network with subversive e-mail.

In that incident, Internet users from around the world reportedly launched an e-mail campaign against the US National Security Agency (NSA) in an attempt to flood the agency's alleged computer surveillance system.
Reports of the time suggested that the protesters were upset at NSA's apparent scanning of e-mail in an attempt to identify potential terrorists.

Today's Times report quotes Millet as saying that the fact that there has been an attempt to intercept a communication is against the law in France, no matter how the information is used.

"You can bet that every time a French government minister makes a call, it is recorded," he told the paper.

Le Monde, meanwhile, quotes members of the French National Assembly as saying that they have proof that the European AirBus consortium lost a $6 billion contract in 1995 after details of its bid were eavesdropped on by Echelon and passed along to Boeing.

Echelon's existence has been discussed in security circles for almost a decade, but its existence was only brought to public attention in early 1997 by Covert Action Quarterly (CAQ), a quarterly intelligence newsletter, which revealed details of the global telecommunications surveillance system.

According to the newsletter, Echelon is a top secret alliance involving the NSA's telecoms surveillance system and other government networks that allows the bulk of the "civilized" world's telephone calls to be digitized and analyzed using intelligent text searching technology.

CAQ said that Echelon monitors virtually all phone calls in the US and Europe, including the UK, effectively making a mockery of the UK's Interception of Communications Act.

The newsletter added that Echelon is used to keyword search e-mail, fax, telex and all types of voice communications, including analog and digital cellular phone calls.

"Unlike many of the electronic spy systems developed during the Cold War, Echelon is designed primarily for non-military targets: governments, organizations, businesses, and individuals in virtually every country. It potentially affects every person communicating between (and sometimes within) countries anywhere in the world," the newsletter said.

The newsletter added that the existence of Echelon was inadvertently revealed by the New Zealand government, which joined the Echelon network in the 1960s.

The four other main members of Echelon are the US' NSA, the UK's GCHQ, Canada's Communications Security Establishment (CSE), and Australia's Defence Signals Directorate (DSD).

The newsletter said that Echelon started life as a UK/US government cooperative initiative in the Second World War. After the war, the agreement was formalized in 1948, when the UK and the US agreed to tackle intelligence gathering against the USSR.

Central to Echelon are the Echelon dictionaries, which are compiled by the five main member's intelligence agencies. Each intelligence agency holds copies of all of the other member's dictionaries, which contain details of keywords that the respective intelligence agency is interested in.

Each agency's computer system scans all available telecoms and data traffic in its region. Where another agency's keyword is found in the digital data stream, the relevant text or data is automatically forwarded to the appropriate agency's computer system.

This means, the newsletter said, that the originating agency's staff never get to see the relevant data - only the agency with the appropriate keyword receives the transmission.

CAQ claims that the relevant agencies' headquarters processing Echelon data surveillance files are located in Washington, Ottawa, Cheltenham, Canberra, and Wellington.

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