The European Parliament has set up a committee to "verify the existence" of the alleged Echelon spy satellite network, which is claimed to have been used by US and UK intelligence agencies to snoop on European business communications.
Fears over Echelon were first raised in a European Parliament report earlier this year. In March, EC Commissioner Erkki Liikanen told the European Parliament during a debate that he had received letters from the US State Department and the UK government denying that the network was being used for industrial espionage.
The US government said in its letter: "The US government and the intelligence community do not accept tasking from private firms and do not collect propriety commercial, technical, or financial information for the benefit of private firms." The UK government said its intelligence services "work within a legal framework".
The French government has also accused Microsoft of collaborating with the UK and US to build a 'backdoor' in Windows, that only they could access, to spy in Europe alongside Echelon. Microsoft refuted the allegations, saying it was an opponent of key escrow - the system of handing over a copy of the key used to decode encrypted communications.
However, the European Parliament was not reassured and set up a 36-member temporary committee, which met for the first time last week. The committee has been briefed to "verify the existence of the communications system known as Echelon" and to "assess the compatibility of such a system within EC law".
The committee will look at whether the rights of European citizens are protected against activities of the secret services and whether encryption is an adequate protection to guarantee privacy. The group will also discuss how European Union (EU) institutions can be made better aware of the risks posed by the activities of the secret services and what measures can be taken.
The decision to set up a committee has been hailed as "timely" by civil rights campaigners.
"The EU inquiry is timely, and hopefully the committee will conclude what we all knew for some time - that the Echelons systems do exist," said Yaman Akdeniz, director of Cyber-Rights & Cyber-Liberties (UK).
"I hope to see the EU taking action against the use of unaccountable surveillance systems such as Echelon, and a policy at the EU level is needed to protect the interests of EU citizens."
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