William Blum on EU Opposition to US Telecommunications Surveillance

I found this interesting little snippet about US electronic spying in issue 118 of William Blum’s Anti-Empire Report. In it, Blum discusses the Echelon system, that allows the US to spy on phone calls around the world. The systems works by tapping phones, listening for certain trigger words. When these get picked up, the call gets recorded and passed onto the NSA, the biggest of the US’ many intelligence agencies. It’s been known about for a very long time. The British conspiracy magazine, Lobster, had an article about it way back in the 1990s. What is interesting is that the EU was opposed to the system, and tried to block American spying on European citizens. Blum writes

ECHELON is carried out without official acknowledgment of its existence, let alone any democratic oversight or public or legislative debate as to whether it serves a decent purpose. The extensiveness of the ECHELON global network is a product of decades of intense Cold War activity. Yet with the end of the Cold War, its budget – far from being greatly reduced – was increased, and the network has grown in both power and reach; yet another piece of evidence that the Cold War was not a battle against something called “the international communist conspiracy”.

The European Parliament in the late 1990s began to wake up to this intrusion into the continent’s affairs. The parliament’s Civil Liberties Committee commissioned a report, which appeared in 1998 and recommended a variety of measures for dealing with the increasing power of the technologies of surveillance. It bluntly advised: “The European Parliament should reject proposals from the United States for making private messages via the global communications network [Internet] accessible to US intelligence agencies.” The report denounced Britain’s role as a double-agent, spying on its own European partners.

He then goes onto describe how the system is used by the NSA and CIA for industrial espionage against European firms. Among the victims of the US’ commercial spying have been Enercon, a German manufacturer of wind generators, Thomson S.A. and Airbus Industrie in France. He also reveals that in 1995
Germany demanded that the United States recall three CIA operatives for their activities in Germany involving economic espionage. The news report stated that the Germans “have long been suspicious of the eavesdropping capabilities of the enormous U.S. radar and communications complex at Bad Aibling, near Munich”, which is in fact an NSA intercept station. “The Americans tell us it is used solely to monitor communications by potential enemies, but how can we be entirely sure that they are not picking up pieces of information that we think should remain completely secret?” asked a senior German official. Japanese officials most likely have been told a similar story by Washington about the more than a dozen signals intelligence bases which Japan has allowed to be located on its territory.

The article also discusses the way the American intelligence services have also been active persuading the manufacturers of encryption software to hand over the keys to the code, and inserting trapdoor programmes in computer software in order to have access to the private data stored on individual computers.

This adds another, very interesting dimension to the current debate about whether Britain should remain in Europe. I’ve blogged about the way membership of the European Union protects us under certain human rights legislation, while the Social Charter guarantees certain minimal rights to European workers. It’s also sobering to find that the EU was concerned about US snooping on its citizens. And this wasn’t done for security, but simply for sheer commercial advantage.

And American technology firms can be extremely predatory. The French found that out to their misfortune when they were busy working on a cure for the HIV virus. They made all their data available free of charge, as they felt it would be immoral to patent such important and potentially life-saving information. Unfortunately, no good deed goes unpunished. An American rival patented the information, and then sued them for infringing their copyright, even though they had not produced the data. This piece of information does not come from a fringe magazine like Lobster, but from New Scientist.

The antics of the American and British surveillance state, and its expansion under Bush, Bliar and Cameron, is a real threat to our liberty. We’re complacent about it at our peril. I doubt this issue will never be raised at the debate about membership of the European Union, but I feel that for sake of our liberty we need to remain inside the EU. The EU has voiced opposition to such increased electronic surveillance, and at the stage I think it’s only from the EU that further concerted opposition can come. It certainly isn’t going to come from our politicos, determined to deprive us of more of our hard-won traditional freedoms under the pretext of saving us from Islamist tyranny.

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One Response to “William Blum on EU Opposition to US Telecommunications Surveillance”

  1. Michelle Thomasson Says:

    The UK’s royalty and politicos have a long dogged history in espionage which at many times had been aided by scientific rivalry, for example in the 1760’s London Fellows had heard that the French had organised several trips to record Venus’ transit. The Royal Society then got lots of cash (£800) from the British government to send it’s own observers and retain the national honour – 8 years later they received £4,000 to check Venus out all over again.

    By the end of that century the aristocrat Joseph Banks was president of the Royal Society and dominated science for 40 years, he also ensured state funding because he knew how “national interests, government policy and scientific exploration” were intertwined.

    “With Banks in charge, The Royal Society participated in every aspect of imperial expansion, making science inseparable from the international search for raw materials and foreign expertise. Committees to discuss colonial development were stacked with Fellows who placed research high on the agenda, so that it was often impossible to distinguish between commercial espionage, diplomatic activity and scientific investigation.” (Science a Four Thousand Year History by Patricia Fara p.180 and 181, 2009). I imagine little has changed.

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