The report of the French National Assembly's enquiry into the Echelon surveillance system, published yesterday, points up dangers to privacy and mission creep whereby a 'security' system is being used to spy on European businesses and technological developments. And somewhat ominously, it recommends that the European Union should push for the development of secure computer systems and liberalise policy on encryption.
The claim that Echelon is used for industrial espionage has some plausibility, particularly as the US has at least partially conceded that this is the case. Enquiry chairman Arthur Paecht however says that he received no co-operation from the US and UK authorities. Which puts the UK in a ticklish position, even before we get onto the implications of Paecht's recommendations.
From the US point of view, apart from using Echelon to combat terrorism, crime and that useful catch-all 'subversives,' it's logical for it to be applied to keep countries and businesses honest. So where businesses may be competing unfairly by offering bribes, Echelon should be (and has been) used to correct the balance. Similarly, in cases where technologies can be used for both civilian and military purposes, Echelon should keep an eye on that too, right?
These are however pretty broad target areas that could quite easily provide justification for snooping on practically anything and anybody, it's a slippery slope, and - crucially, from a French and European perspective - its direction is in the hands of the US and the UK (we'll suspend disbelief and pretend the US actually asks us about this stuff, rather than just parking the gear here).
Echelon and the UK's role in the system have raised considerable ire in the rest of Europe, and in Brussels itself. The likelihood of Paecht's recommendations or something similar being acted upon is therefore fairly high. But if Brussels takes steps to protect privacy, crank up the levels of encryption available, and lock Echelon out, it would put the UK and its snoop-happy home secretary in a tricky position, wouldn't it? All that work on the RIP bill could go up in smoke after all.