Dutch Government Says Echelon Exists...

20.01.2001

...and at the same time admits it can no longer guarantee the protection of the right to privacy of its citizens

The Dutch government Friday confirmed the existence of the global spying system known as Echelon. 'Although the Dutch government does not have official confirmation of the existence of Echelon by the governments related to this system, it thinks it is plausible this network exists,' the government wrote in a letter to Dutch Parliament. Monday the parliament is holding a public session on Echelon.

Till now the Dutch government denied the existence of Echelon. The official position was: we don't know if the system exists, the governments that could tell us if it does won't comment on the affair, therefore it is of no use to investigate the case any further. Under growing pressure from press revelations and with the installation of a hearing committee of the parliament, the government announced a month ago it would come forward with a formal statement.

In a longish report from the Minister of Defence, the government confirms that modern telecommunication systems can easily be intercepted. 'The experience of the last years made clear that modern communication systems can be intercepted in secret and at large distance,' the government states. Such modern communication systems include mobile communication systems, satellite communications, high frequency communication, international telecom satellites and Internet traffic. According to the government paper, not only police forces and the intelligence services are capable of interception, but also criminal groups and rich individuals or companies.

The Dutch government also confirms that interception authorities try to weaken cryptography. It names the example of deliberately weakening the crypto standards of mobile telephones and the export control on crypto products. The government says that in the future more communication will be interceptable. The integration of conventional mobile telecommunication networks, normal telephone networks and the Internet in global networks, and the convergence of different communication systems, opens the possibility to 'intercept almost all the telecommunication of users'. The protection of land bound cables, satellite traffic, sea cables and satellites is the weak spot in modern communication systems according to the Dutch government. The government further confirms that it is technically possible to intercept at random all telecommunication, store it in huge database and search the databases with key words.

All this information leads the Dutch government to take the position to believe that Echelon in fact does exist. 'Although the Dutch government does not have official confirmation of the existence of Echelon by the governments related to this system, it thinks it is plausible this network exists,' the government wrote in the letter to the Dutch Parliament. The government also states it believes there are other systems with the same capabilities as Echelon:

'The government believes not only the governments associated with Echelon are able to intercept communication systems, but that it is an activity of the investigative authorities and intelligence services of many countries with governments of different political signature.'

The Dutch government also says that it is no longer possible to take the view that a national government is accountable for the protection of the fundamental rights of its citizens, like privacy. In the light of the technical possibilities of interception from a distance, governments were not able to ensure this right. The alternative is to take as a starting point the laws of the country that is intercepting.

'This opens the possibility to start a discussion with other countries on international standards which must balance the privacy rights of citizens and the legitimate needs of law enforcement.'

According to the Dutch government, this choice could lead to the following solution. If a citizen in a foreign country thinks the Netherlands intercepts its communication, he or she could be given the right to lodge a complaint by Dutch government. If a Dutch citizen believes his communication is intercepted by a foreign nation, he could lodge a complaint by the authorities of that country.

This Monday, the parliament is holding a public session on Echelon. Experts are asked to give their views on the existence of Echelon. With the launching of the report on friday, observers believe the government has taken the sharp edges of the discussion. The refusal of Dutch government to answer seriously on questions regarding Echelon is no longer at stake. What remains is a discussion of ways to handle the existence of large-scale interception systems.

What also remains is the practice of the Dutch authorities themselves relating to interception practices, and the relationship between Echelon, European initiatives regarding cross bounder interception activities, and the co-operation between the European Union and the United States on this subject. According to the governmental report, the Dutch authorities only use interception according to national laws that are balanced and not a threat to privacy. It is expected experts will take during the Monday session a different view.

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