Dutch government: Yes, there is an Echelon

A public hearing in the Dutch Parliament is discussing the eavesdropping system Echelon, which is widely reputed to clandestinely monitor global telecommunications traffic at the behest of the US and other English-speaking countries, including New Zealand.

          Privacy advocates say the Dutch Parliament is Johnny-come-lately to the issue of the eavesdropping system Echelon.

          At a public hearing this week, the legislature's Second Chamber, or lower house, discussed Echelon, which is widely reputed to clandestinely monitor global telecommunications traffic at the behest of the US and other English-speaking countries - including New Zealand.

          But one participant in the hearing isn't expecting much action to combat the monitoring.

          "The problem is that Holland has a not very impressive reputation when it comes to parliamentary oversight on intelligence issues," says Maurice Wessling, director of the Amsterdam-based privacy group Bits of Freedom, who addressed Monday's hearing. "This is not something that Parliament deals with a lot, nor does it really want to deal with a lot."

          A report from the Dutch Defense Ministry to the Parliament last Friday effectively acknowledged the existence of Echelon, though none of the governments believed to be involved -- including the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand -- has officially admitted to its existence. Other countries are concerned that the system is being used for industrial espionage, allegations the US and UK governments have rejected.

          "The Dutch government does not have access to confirmed information about the existence of Echelon from the governments that have been named in connection with it; however, this can be assumed due to currently available information, studies and public sources," said the ministry in a statement.

          The ministry referred to investigations of Echelon undertaken by the Belgian and French parliaments, as well as to a special temporary committee set up last year by the European Parliament.

          The ministry's letter went on to warn that communications networks are at risk of monitoring not only by state agencies, but also by private citizens, businesses and organised crime.

          Wessling says he finds it odd that the government's report only quoted media reports about Echelon, and did not order the country's intelligence services to investigate. He says he suspects his country doesn't want to risk upsetting allies over the issue.

          "Holland has always been a very loyal part of NATO, and they will always be very careful in jeopardising American and English operations and interests," he says.

          He adds, however, that he welcomes the government's acknowledgement of Echelon's existence,

          "Because it gives the possibility now to go to the real issues: What does it do, what impact does it have, and how can we protect ourselves."

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