Dutch plan large-scale satellite snooping

By EDRi · March 10, 2005

The Dutch ministry of defence is planning to build a large facility to intercept civilian and military satellite communications. The Echelon-like site at Burum, in the north of the Netherlands, will have 15 dishes and listen to telephone, fax and internet telecommunications. The large streams of intercepted information will be examined by a new intelligence service, the National Sigint Organisation (NSO). This organisation will become the third secret service in the Netherlands next to the already existing military and the civilian intelligence service.

The Dutch government wants to drastically expand it signals intelligence capabilities. Until now satellite snooping is done through a two dish facility at Zoutkamp. The ministry of Defence first tried to expand the existing location but was blocked in court by people living nearby. The court ruled that provisions in the municipal land-use plan would conflict with such a large military installation. The ministry also couldn’t counter safety concerns. The new site at Burum is actually a commercial satellite ground station operated by Xantic, in which Dutch telecommunication company KPN has a 65% share.

The Dutch government will buy part of the Xantic site to build the satellite dishes that the NSO will use to snoop on communication satellites. Details of the new site have become public after EDRI-member Bits of Freedom obtained building maps of the site. The building maps show on which part of the Xantic site the NSO will build its sigint installation. The maps also mention which satellites the NSO dishes will intercept: 7 for Intelsat and 8 for Inmarsat. The strange symbiosis between Xantic and the NSO will result into the Xantic dishes handling Intelsat and Inmarsat traffic and a few meters away the NSO dishes picking up that same traffic. In other words Xantic is selling part of its facility to have its own costumers bugged. Xantic has no legal obligation to assist in this way.

In the Dutch parliament there has been little discussion about the expansion of satellite snooping. According to the ministry of defence the Netherlands need the extra dishes to combat terrorism and support Dutch troops overseas. But in answers to questions from the parliament’s defence committee the minister of defence also acknowledged that the large facility will give the Netherlands a very good position to trade intelligence with allied intelligence services. This argument explains why the Netherlands are expanding their modest snooping operation into one of the biggest facilities in Europe.

Dutch intelligence services are allowed by law to intercept any wireless communication without prior approval of a judge or minister (rules for non-wireless communication are more strict; tapping a land-line telephone will require permission from a minister). The intelligence services can freely search the airwaves for interesting communications. A ‘word-list’ to search certain words and names in wireless communication requires the once-a-year approval of the entire list by the minister of Interior.

The interception of satellite communications was a hot topic in the European and Dutch parliament in 2001. The European parliament had ordered an investigation into the existence of the US/Anglo-Saxon Echelon network in 1997 and 1999 through the so-called STOA reports. In 2001 a temporary committee of the parliament delivered a report that concluded that Echelon existed and was targeting private and commercial communications of European citizens and companies.

The European parliament concluded that such a satellite interception system would breach EC law if it was used to gather competitive intelligence, which would be at odds with the concept of a common market based on free competition. Parliament also concluded that such a system would only function in accordance with Article 8 of the ECHR if it would have effective oversight and control from national parliaments. “An intelligence system which intercepted communications permanently and at random would be in violation of the principle of proportionality and would therefore not be compatible with the ECHR.” In its recommendations the report urged governments to stimulate the use of encryption technology in order to protect citizens and companies against snooping practices.

Bits of Freedom: Dutch National Sigint Organisation building plans

Report on the existence of a global system for the interception of private and commercial communications (ECHELON interception system) (11.07.2001)

(Contribution by Maurice Wessling, EDRI-member Bits of Freedom)