The ENFOPOL connection

Not too long ago, word began to circulate that European governments, suffering from a nasty case of snoopers' envy over the English-speaking countries' long-standing ability to eavesdrop upon phone calls, faxes, and e-mail around the world through the NSA-driven Echelon system, were cooking up a scheme of their own. Unlike the trenchcoat-and-fedora efforts of the five-nation Echelon arrangement, which are focused, at least theoretically, on communications outside of those countries, the rival European ENFOPOL 98 scheme was designed to give law enforcement authorities the legal and technical wherewithal to intercept messages within their jurisdictions at will. Now though, while the European proposal is still evolving, it seems to be less of a competitor to American snooping than part of a full-press effort by cops around the world to steam open everybody's envelopes.

While the European scheme was originally compared to Echelon, a long-standing, world-wide surveillance set-up operated by United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, the two eavesdropping systems have some important differences. While Echelon is reputed to be able to intercept virtually any telephone call, fax, e-mail, or radio transmission on the planet and scan the resulting data for key words and phrases, it's primarily a foreign espionage system intended to safeguard its operators. Theoretically, at least, domestic communications of the five host nations are excluded from the system (and you can take that with as large a grain of salt as you wish), so the legal safeguards within those countries are supposedly neither challenged nor relevant.

But, as recently leaked to the UK-based Foundation for Information Policy Research, ENFOPOL 98 — which has now been retitled ENFOPOL 19, either as part of the European Union's usual bureaucratic shenanigans, or in an effort to defuse furious criticism — seeks to institutionalize Echelon-like interception as a law enforcement tool within the European nations, sanctioned by their laws. Somewhat obliquely, the current version of the proposal refers to earlier drafts by stating:

The Council notes that the requirements of law enforcement agencies with regard to network operators and service providers for the purposes of lawful interception of telecommunications, as described in the Annex to the Council Resolution of 17 January 1995 (96/C 329/01) are applicable both to existing and new communications technologies, for example satellite telecommunications and Internet telecommunications.
As The Guardian newspaper kindly translated, this means that "[t]he plans require the installation of a network of tapping centres throughout Europe, operating almost instantly across all national boundaries."

Under the plan, private and public operators of communications systems of any sort would have to redesign their systems for convenient wiretapping. This means that Internet Service Providers might have to provide secure space to house law enforcement equipment that would monitor their customers' e-mail and Web traffic. Does this set off any eerie feelings of déjà vu? It should. It's remarkably similar to, if a bit tougher than, the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), which was signed into law by President Clinton in 1994 after heavy lobbying by the FBI.

Don't take that as a coincidence (in life, there are few true coincidences). It turns out that the European voyeurism scheme now contained in ENFOPOL 19 is based on recommendations by something called the International Law Enforcement Telecommunications Seminar (ILETS). ILETS started as a gathering of cops and security officials from around the world — including such garden spots as China — at Quantico, Virginia under the sponsorship of (can you guess?) the Federal Bureau of Investigations.

Which is to say, that cops around the world are now reading from the same script in crafting and proposing policy for regulating any semblance of privacy out of communications systems. European authorities were apparently not even told that the proposals they were examining were part of a worldwide wish list cooked up by police and security officials from nations that include overt police states.

The FBI connection to ENFOPOL 19 raises an interesting question that probably can't be answered quite yet. What role if any does the National Security Agency, a signals intelligence entity that has tapped world communications for many years for espionage purposes, play in crafting proposals that require that communications be easier to tap? The NSA may be neck deep in this business, or ILETS and its twin offspring of CALEA and ENFOPOL 19 may simply be a matter of parallel evolution; after all, the FBI and its law-enforcement brethren around the world are fully as nosy and inconsiderate of liberty as any number of spooks. Either way, telecommunications systems designed to be easy to tap aren't going to disappoint people who specialize in doing just that.

For now, ENFOPOL 19 is still a proposal, not law, and facing some ferocious opposition from European parliamentarians who didn't like the wiretapping scheme when they first saw it, and don't like the retitled shell game version any better now that it's been revealed. But there are a lot of highly placed officials pushing for this scheme, arguing that law enforcement must be "modernized" along with technology — although cops never claimed the right to intercept phone calls as will in the past.

And let's not forget that a very close cousin to ENFOPOL 19, designed by the kind folks at ILETS, is already law in the United States.

Dateline: 5/10/99

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