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Thursday, December 18, 1997 Published at 22:54 GMT

image: [ BBC Despatches ]Andrew Wood
BBC Business

A new report commissioned by the European Parliament has officially confirmed the existence of what it says is a gigantic electronic spy network that monitors almost all phone, fax and other electronic communications in Europe. It says the network is co-ordinated by the United States National Security Agency in association with other security organisations. The report was commissioned by the European Parliament's committee on civil rights. Here's our business and technology correspondent Andrew Wood:

The report says that countless fax, e-mail and telephone messages in Europe are being intercepted by the network. It says the monitoring is "routine and indiscriminate".

In the past it would have been too expensive to listen to or read every message that was sent. But this network, called Echelon, is said to use computers to look for key words or sentences, and alert human operators if what's been said looks interesting, say on the subject of drugs or terrorism.

Glyn Ford, a British member of the European Parliament, is on the committee that commissioned the report: "Almost by accident we've stumbled on to what we believe is a substantial problem for the 15 member states of the European Union and their citizens with respect to their human rights.

"We're hoping we can use our position to alert other parliaments and people throughout the EU as to what's going on. And hopefully that will lead to a situation where some proper controls are instituted and that these things are done under controlled conditions."

Mr Ford said the basis for the network is a 50 year old agreement between the governments of Britain, the United States Australia, Canada and New Zealand to monitor communications and share information.

He believes that the security agencies need to be more accountable.

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