Britain accused of spying on its EU neighbours

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BRITAIN belongs to a consortium of electronic espionage agencies in the Anglo-Saxon world which systematically eavesdrops on business and economic secrets in European Union countries.

This allegation will be made next month in a report commissioned by the European Parliament, which will denounce Britain's role as a double-agent, spying on its own European partners.

A draft of the report, leaked to the French newspaper Le Figaro, says British intelligence services belong to a network called Echelon, which also includes the United States, Australian and New Zealand spy agencies. The network intercepts and shares information from 100 million telephone, fax and e-mail messages a day.

Although this global bugging operation combs the airwaves for classic intelligence and criminal information, it also targets sensitive business and economic secrets, especially in Europe. Telephone messages containing key words are automatically intercepted and recorded. They are then sent to the National Security Agency, the American electronic intelligence service, in Washington.

Information, including business information, which might interest the individual Echelon countries is decrypted, analysed and sent back.

"It is profoundly shocking and should provoke a general outcry," said Jean-Pierre Millet, a French lawyer specialising in computer crime. "Britain's European partners have a right to be furious but [the British] won't abandon their pact with the US."

According to Le Figaro, other EU governments have known of the existence of Echelon, and Britain's part in it, for seven years. They have chosen to make no public complaint but instead warn companies of the dangers of transmitting sensitive information on international telephone lines, which use satellite links.

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