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  • NRC: Parliament urged to conduct inquiry into Echelon

    NRC Handelsblad

    Friday 16 June

    Jelle van Buuren
    Eveline Lubbers
    Maurice Wessling

    Parliament urged to conduct inquiry into Echelon

    A European working group will investigate how industrial espionage resulting from the interception of telecommunications traffic can be prevented. The investigation includes research into the interception activities of The United States and Great Britain.

    Until recently the Dutch government has refused to give serious answers to questions posed in parliament over the global electronic spying system, run by America, England, Australia, New Zeeland and Canada. Echelon has been in the news regularly the past two years. Diverse investigative reports, including studies by from the European Parliament, have revealed that the originally military espionage network has also been put to use to forward economic aims and to spy upon individuals and non-governamental organisations (NGO’s)like Greenpeace and Amnesty.

    The cabinet nevertheless refuses to confirm Echelon’s existence. During the last two years, questions over Echelon have been posed on six separate occasions, but the reply has remained steadfastly the same. According to the cabinet, the information over Echelon that was made public exists “exclusively” from “public sources”. Even if this information were to be true, the countries involved in these interception activities would refuse to reveal information anyway, thus rendering any further investigation futile. Circle completed – end of discussion.

    This manner of reasoning lets the government off lightly. It’s not as if the information from “open sources” comes from insignificant sources like former secret service colleagues telling tales on their ex-employers. The information consists of official American parliamentary documents concerning Echelon that have recently been made public, and from journalistic research into the use of Echelon to steal orders away from European businesses. Furthermore, details over Echelon’s working methods have been revealed by unexpected sources. James Woolsey, former director of the CIA, admitted in March of this year that America had spied upon European companies to track down bribery and corruption. In a reaction to the commotion in Europe, he wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Yes, my continental European friends, we have spied on you. And it’s true that we use computers to sort through data by using key words.”

    The uninspired discussion taking place in The Netherlands over Echelon is in direct contrast to developments abroad. The European Parliament has initiated a wide scale investigation into Echelon, and is exerting increasing amounts of pressure. Investigations into Echelon’s activities are also being carried out in Belgium, Denmark and Italy. This critical attitude has evolved out of a realistic assessment of the important issues at stake, and a refusal to let themselves be hampered by a blind faith in the Anglo-Saxon side of the Transatlantic treaty. The Netherlands should learn from their neighbours because the interests of Dutch citizens and companies are also at stake. Businesses risk losing orders and having their industrial secrets stolen. Individual privacy is also threatened by the fact that citizens’ communications are being intercepted by foreign intelligence services. Minister Korthals of Justice recognised that the protection of privacy in the information era is also a governmental task. In his recently published memorandum “Internationalisation and law in the information society” he wrote, “The government should bear the responsibility for the protection of fragile interests. Society as a whole is becoming increasingly dependant upon electronic equipment and is therefore, becoming increasingly vulnerable.’

    When it comes to Echelon, the minister swears that the possible foreign interception activities fall outside Dutch jurisdiction, which is why no action has been taken against them. However, it is precisely in this area that intensive international discussions have taken place in order to find an international response to the new reality of the global information society. In the recently accorded European Treaty for Mutual assistance with criminal cases, extensive agreements were made over transnational interception by member European states. As soon as the words economic and political espionage are mentioned, or the role played by (foreign) intelligence services, the cabinet appears to be afflicted with a sudden inability to hear.

    The Dutch government has not come out of this looking good. Cees Wiebes and Bob de Graff conducted extensive research into the Foreign Intelligence Service, which carried out Echelon- like tasks in The Netherlands until it was disbanded in 1994. In their book, Villa Maarheze, they speak of an “incestuous relationship” between the IDB and the business community, and stated that this was never a problem for politicians. The new Intelligence and Security Service bill, now being discussed in the Dutch parliament, would, if passed, introduce a legalised Dutch version of the Echelon project. According to the bill, the General Intelligence and Security Service AIVD, the BVD’s new title would carry out economic intelligence. Furthermore, the new BVD would be authorised to indiscriminately intercept all satellite communications traffic and to search it using key words, which is exactly the same method used by Echelon. The aim of this economic intelligence service is to protect “The Netherlands’ vital economic interests”. What these are precisely has not yet been specified. On the economic front, intelligence investigations can take place “When national security as such is not at risk or difficult to argue for” This reads like a carte blanche for economic espionage.

    In the same bill, the new BVD will also obtain the authority to save all intercepted encrypted messages until they can be decrypted. The fact that encrypted messages are interesting for the intelligence service for the simple reason that they have been encrypted in the first place, is literally stated in this bill.

    This makes the Home Secretary’s (the one responsible for this bill) reaction to recent parliamentary questioning over Echelon rather puzzling. What did he advice citizens and businesses that were worried about undesirable interception? To encrypt their messages

    The coming year numerous subjects will be raised in parliament, concerning the consequences of the information revolution for state and society. The advice of the Digital Commission of Constitutional Rights, the previously mentioned memorandum from Minister Korthals, the Cybercrime Treaty from the Council of Europe, the Bill Intelligence and Security Services and the Computer Criminality II law illustrate this point. It is not desirable or realistic to avoid the principled discussions over the role of (foreign) intelligence services in economic espionage any longer. It’s high time that parliament steeled itself for a thorough investigation into the facts and fictions concerning wide scale interception activities. On the basis of such research, parliament can urge the cabinet to exercise diplomatic pressure on the Echelon countries, or to come to international treaties that can limit or exclude the use of Echelon. One possibility would be to endorse the views of Euro parliamentarian Graham Watson. He proposed applying international human rights legislation to large-scale interception activities. According to Watson confidential communication should be regarded as a fundamental human right in the digital era. Only in exceptional cases and according to carefully defined criteria may a violation of this right take place. This also fits in with the advice from the digital commission for constitutional rights, who wants to include the right to confidential communications in the Constitution.

    Jelle van Buuren, Eveline Lubbers and Maurice Wessling (Bits of Freedom) are the authors of the Cryptography Dossier.