- The European Parliament has approved the creation of a special temporary committee to investigate allegations that the US-backed Echelon satellite information system is stealing European industrial secrets.
Echelon is a network of supercomputers and satellites run by the US National Security Agency (NSA) and located in the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, capable of eavesdropping on electronic communications in the form of faxes, telephone calls and electronic mail. The US and UK governments have repeatedly denied that it is used for industrial espionage, saying the system was set up as a means to fight terrorism, money laundering and drug trafficking.
The system has, however, particularly irritated the French, who saw Jean-Pierre Dintilhac, a French state prosecutor, launch a preliminary judicial investigation on Tuesday to determine whether Echelon was compatible with French law.
Whether the rights and privacy of European citizens are being properly protected from this government intrusion is one of the questions facing the 36-member committee set up by the European Parliament. During its year-long mandate, it will also consider whether encryption provides adequate protection to guarantee privacy and how to make European Union institutions better aware of the risks posed by such activities.
The European Parliament approved the creation of the committee by 340 votes to 210, defeating a joint proposal by the Green Party and Socialist party to set up a full-blown committee of inquiry, which would have far wider powers to demand the participation of key figures in the Echelon affair.
As created, the committee will have no formal powers, although it can invite key officials to discuss the issue. At the end of its investigation, the committee will issue recommendations for follow-up political or legislative initiatives, according to its mandate. These actions could, for example, involve the creation of a full-blown committee of inquiry.
During the committee's first meeting late on Wednesday, it named Carlos Coelho, a Portuguese Christian Democrat, as president. There would be a thorough investigation of the claims of industrial espionage, Coelho said in a statement, adding, however, that telecommunications could be a legitimate tool for fighting organized crime.
The claims of industrial espionage were first made in a report by Duncan Campbell, an investigative journalist, at the request of the European Parliament's own research division. To date, however, no company has come forward to substantiate the claims.
The European Parliament can be found on the Web at http://www.europarl.eu.int/.