Why Eye in the Sky Is a Tempest in a Teacup

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Oooh-la-la! Europeans, particularly the French, are getting hot around the collar over a report claiming that information gathered by a U.S.-led spying network is being used to give industrial secrets to American corporations. They're probably wasting their sweat. The report, presented to the European Parliament Wednesday, set off a frenzy by fueling the deepest European fears about American manipulation of global trade. But U.S. and E.U. officials are now questioning whether the Parliament acted irresponsibly in accepting the report, which was compiled by a Scottish freelance journalist who based his research primarily on prior newspaper accounts of espionage.

The report centers on the Echelon system, a Cold War-era surveillance network operated by the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Britain. It concludes that U.S. intelligence officials colluded with top American tech firms, including Microsoft and IBM, in operating the system and sifting through the vast amount of information it intercepts daily. Upon hearing the E.C. report, French justice minister Elisabeth Guigou complained vociferously, encouraging French businesses to encrypt any sensitive information transmitted over phone lines or satellites.

The reaction strikes some as hypocritical. "There's a lot of lip service being given in France to the principle that an ally would spy on an ally," says TIME Paris bureau chief Thomas Sancton, "but since all these countries are doing it, the only thing that's different here is the magnitude of America's satellite network." But the simple fact that the Parliament was willing to accept the report — prompting U.S.-fearing headlines across the continent — highlights a growing unease with American dominance of the technology sector. "The English-speaking world is seen through French eyes, and to an extent through the eyes of the other European nations, as a threat to the survival of European languages and cultures," says Sancton. "English dominates the Internet and this spying case is seen as America having the ability to vacuum up information from all over Europe and using it to extend that dominance."