AMERICAN intelligence agents have hacked into the computers of the European parliament and European commission as part of an international espionage campaign aimed at stealing economic and political secrets, according to investigators.
The European parliament has called in British communications experts to improve its security and to block further attempts by American govern ment agents to spy on its workings.
Security officials at the parliament's Luxembourg offices say they have discovered several recent instances in which its communications system was compromised by American hacking. They have also found evidence that the Americans used information obtained from hacking to help them in negotiations last year on the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).
Lord Plumb, leader of the British Tory MEPs in the European parliament, said he was shocked by the disclosure. "I will be taking this up directly with the American ambassador [to the European Union]," he said.
The CIA has already been accused by the Japanese and French governments of hacking into their communications networks in an attempt to obtain confidential trade secrets.
The European parliament's computer network links more than 5,000 MEPs, officials, researchers and other staff to each other, and to the European commission headquarters in Brussels and the council of ministers.
Traffic across the network by telephone and computers includes details of the private medical and financial records of many MEPs and officials, and discussion documents on confidential issues, including trade, tariff and quota agreements. The records of closed committees of inquiry into BSE and fraud are also stored on the system.
European parliament sources say the Americans accessed the network by compromising the information exchanges that link the parliament's internal networks with the Internet and external users.
The devices, called "routers", filter entry to the European parliament's network. It is understood the Americans were able to obtain access to what is called the simple network management protocol (SNMP), the language that enables the networks to talk to each other. They were able to exploit the fact that parts of the system were manufactured by two American firms.
The breach came to light when officials believed that American negotiators had been given advance warning of confidential European Union positions in last year's trade negotiations. "It was established that the system had been penetrated just days before the talks," an EU source said. "Our principal concern is not to establish what has already been copied but to ensure that it does not happen again. This is an on-going problem."
A spokeswoman for Antonio Cavaco, director of data processing at the commission, confirmed that allegations of hacking had been investigated. However, she said she was unable to provide any details.