24 February 1997
The New York Times, February 24, 1998, Cybertimes
A massive telecommunications interception network operates within Europe and, according to a new study circulating on the Internet, "targets the telephone, fax and e-mail messages of private citizens, politicians, trade unionists and companies alike."
The report says that the network has the ability to tap into almost all international telecommunications as well as parts of domestic phone traffic and is apparently operated by intelligence agencies without any mechanism of democratic control.
The network, dubbed Echelon, is described in a new study by the European Parliament titled "An Appraisal of Technologies of Political Control."
The 112-page document, dated January 6, 1998, is considered an internal working
paper and, therefore, has not been posted on the parliament's own Web server.
While paper copies of the report have been made public, in the last three
weeks, it has begun to be reproduced on the Internet by civil liberties advocates
and is now available from several Web sites.
The report was written by Steve Wright, an analyst with the Omega Foundation, a British human rights organization, on behalf of a research unit of the European Parliament known as STOA (Scientific and Technological Options Assessment). [The European Parliament is the legislative body of the European Union (EU), an economic and political alliance of 15 countries.]
According to the report, in the last few years many governments have spent huge sums on the development of new technologies from surveillance systems to paralyzing weapons for their police and security forces.
While the adoption of these technologies may have legitimate law enforcement functions and may be relatively harmless when accompanied by strong regulation and accountability mechanisms, "without such democratic controls they provide powerful tools of oppression," the report states. Outmatched by the speed and complexity of technological innovation, the fear is that these controls have been quickly weakening in recent years.
The rapid and unchecked proliferation of surveillance devices among both the private and public sector presents today "a serious threat to civil liberties in Europe" and could have "awesome implications," the document stresses.
Drawing from sources as diverse as academia, intelligence agencies and non-governmental organizations, the STOA study offers a rare description and evaluation of the technologies of political control what it calls weaponry aimed "as much at hearts and minds as at body."
This includes electronic surveillance systems; data gathering, processing and filtering devices; biometric and other human identity recognition tools; so-called "less-lethal" weapons for crowd control; new prison control systems, and torture and execution techniques.
One core trend identified by Wright has been "towards a militarisation of the police and a paramilitarisation of military forces in Europe," meaning that the technologies used by police and the army converge and become "more or less indistinguishable."
This "parallels a political shift in targeting," the report adds. Instead of investigating crime (which is a reactive activity) law enforcement agencies are now increasingly "tracking certain social classes and races of people living in the red-lined areas before any crime is committed" a form of pre-emptive policing dubbed "data-veillance" and based on military models of gathering huge amounts of low-grade intelligence and digging out deviant patterns.
The term data-veillance covers an impressive range of methods and devices, including vision technology; bugging and interception techniques; satellite tracking; through-clothing human scanning; automatic fingerprinting; human recognition systems that can recognize genes, odor and retina patterns, and biometric systems.
Electronic surveillance technology, the systems that can monitor the movements of individuals and their communications, "is one of the areas where outdated regulations have not kept pace with an accelerating pattern of abuses" by law enforcement agencies and private companies, Wright says in the report.
The report paints a frightening picture of an Orwellian world. For example, it states that Britain has set up the first DNA databank, and at least one political party is suggesting "to DNA-profile the nation from birth." Face-recognition systems "are perhaps five years off." Parabolic and laser microphones can detect distant conversation, even behind closed windows. Stroboscopic cameras can individually photograph all the participants in a march.
Among the more futuristic scenarios portrayed in the study, robots called neural network bugs, built like small cockroaches, can crawl to the best location for surveillance. Researchers are now working on controlling and manipulating real cockroaches by implanting microprocessors and electrodes in their bodies. "The insects can be fitted with micro-cameras and sensors to reach the places other bugs can't reach," Wright says.
Cameras used for traffic monitoring can easily be adapted to security surveillance. "Democratic accountability is the only criterion which distinguishes a modern traffic control system from an advanced dissident capture technology," Wright states, adding that several companies have been exporting traffic control devices to Lhasa in Tibet recently.
"Lhasa does not as yet have any traffic control problem," he adds.
The most explosive section of the report discusses the Echelon system.
As Wright describes it, this global surveillance machine "stretches around
the world to form a targeting system on all of the key Intelsat satellites
used to convey most of the world's satellite phone calls, Internet traffic,
e-mail, faxes and telexes," according to the report. Unlike many of the
electronic spy systems developed during the cold war, Echelon "is designed
primarily for non-military targets: governments, organisations and businesses
in virtually every country."
Wright says the system works by indiscriminately intercepting industrial quantities of communications and then siphoning out what could be valuable, using artificial intelligence aids and keywords searches. Dictionaries of keywords, phrases and people are defined by each of the five countries participating in network: the United States, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, yet the main actor appears to be the United States National Security Agency.
"Within Europe, all e-mail, telephone and fax communications are routinely intercepted by the NSA," the report charges, acknowledging that while there is much information gathered about potential terrorists through such methods, there is a lot of economic intelligence that gets caught, as well.
Wright also reports that in 1995 the EU states signed a memorandum of understanding (which remains classified) to set up a new international telephone tapping network.
The document apparently reflects concerns among European intelligence agencies that modern scrambling and coding technology could prevent them from tapping private communications. The EU governments agreed to cooperate closely on this issue with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, "yet early minutes of these meetings suggest that the original initiative came from Washington," Wright's report says.
Under the agreement, he says, "Network and service providers in the EU will be obliged to install 'tappable' systems and to place under surveillance any person or group when served with an interception order."
These plans have "never been subject to proper parliamentary discussion [in Europe]," Wright stresses. He suggests that the time has now arrived to bring much of this technology back within the reach of democratic supervision and accountability.
The basic assumption behind the deployment of these technologies of political control is that they enhance policing capacities and allow a faster response time and a greater cost-effectiveness in fighting crime.
In addition, some people feel that only those with something to hide need to fear the enlarged data-gathering capacities of police computers.
Yet the bookkeeping and paternalistic approach of the phenomenon cannot be satisfying in democratic societies. There is a pressing need to determine the extent to which these new technologies are about political and social control rather than citizen protection, the report says.
"Explicit and publicly available criteria should be agreed upon for deciding who should be targeted for surveillance and who should not, how such data is stored, processed and shared," Wright writes.
"The European parliament should reject proposals from the United States for making private messages via the Internet accessible to U.S. intelligence agencies," he adds. Nor should it agree on new encryption controls without considering "the civil and human rights of European citizens and the commercial rights of companies to operate without unwarranted surveillance by intelligence agencies operating in conjunction with multinational competitors" an obvious reference to American agencies, which are often perceived as sharing collateral economic intelligence with U.S. companies.