Europe fights for data equality

FROM ANDREW MARSHALL

in Brussels

The European Union wants to create a European system for data encryption to break what it regards as the United States' stranglehold on data secrecy. The proposals will fuel the transatlantic row over who runs the information superhighway, the subject of an international conference that opened in Brussels yesterday.

The European Commission plans for data encryption - putting information into code that can be read only by people with the right key - will allow business, governments and individuals to send data securely.

Business considers this vital. But the only way to do it legally is to get software from the US, which is difficult because of export restrictions.

Business and individuals in the US are able to protect their information, but European officials believe that because it is difficult to get the same protection in Europe, the US is able to gather economic intelligence more easily here than in America.

The proposed EU system would allow agencies in member states to hold a separate "key" to crack the encryption if there was a legal reason, such as suspicion of criminal activity. These agencies could be chosen by the member states: Britain could nominate the Government's intelligence monitoring centre, GCHQ, or a private organisation. To tap into an individual or organisation's communications, the Government or security services would have to go through a legal process.

Britain is expected to object, arguing that the matter is a subject for member governments only. However, the Commission plan - expected to be published next week - is to be put forward on a legal basis that would not allow Britain a veto. No British comment was available yesterday.

The move is part of a wave of opposition in Europe to US dominance of the information superhighway.

Today, senior ministers from the Group of Seven leading industrialised countries - the US, Britain, France, Italy, Germany and Canada - meet in Brussels to discuss how to co-operate on building a global information superhighway. But with the public row between France and the US over spying the backdrop is hardly encouraging.

Ministers arrived yesterday, including Ian Taylor from the Department of Trade and Industry. They are due to agree aset of principles, as well as 11 new projects intended to promote a global network.

The Brussels conference, which includes a showcase for many of the new technologies, offers little of political substance. However its organisers - showing a flash of humour rare in the world of info-jargon - define the information superhighway as "something that cannot be seen or touched, though it can be talked about ad nauseam".

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