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French intelligence is intercepting British businessmen`s calls after investing millions in satellite technology for its listening stations.
The French government upgraded signals intelligence last year. Now secret, service elements are using it to tap into commercial secrets. At least eight centres, scattered across France, are being "aimed" at British defence firms, petroleum companies and other commercial targets.
Eavesdroppers can pluck GSM digital mobile phone signals from the air by targeting individual numbers or sweeping sets of numbers. Targets have included executives at British Aerospace, British Petroleum and British Airways, according to French sources.
Senior executives have been told not to discuss sensitive issues on mobile phones, and BAe staff have been told to be "especially careful" during campaigns for new business, such as the current battle to supply Eurofighter missiles.
An executive within one British defence firm said: "Top people use the same mobile telephones as anyone else, without any sort of high-tech security equipment. There is an understanding that we need to be careful. People never say anything that they would not want heard elsewhere - especially at sensitive times and during projects when other people may have an interest in listening."
The upgraded listening centres enable the French to intercept digital signals, known as GSM systems. Digital mobile signals are made up of short, dense bursts of information compressed into a binary digital signal and transmitted.
If the listening statioti knows the mobile number either making or receiving the call, it can "grab" the information.
Even this technology, however, is outdated compared with GCHQ`s capabilities. The British station was accused by civil rights campaigners last year of randomly sweeping calls before its computers alerted operators to any calls in which certain key words were used - a system known as Echelon. The station itself has always denied carrying out this illegal activity.
Officially the French secret services should not pass on commercial information or even be listening to it. However, state ownership of large firms has meant that the same senior civil servants involved with liaising with the security services from Paris are often those also
involved with running some of the country`s larger firms.
In Britain, top firms do not receive direct help from M16, NII5 or GCHQ, although information based on thematic reports or general assessments - rather than raw intelligence - can sometimes find its way back to them.
In France, however, the intelligence services have traditionally been more willing to help their own firms. The French, whom one former British spy described as "obsessive about intelligence", have also been at the heart of some of the worst extremes of overstepping the mark.
French secret agents sank the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand, and The Sunday Times revealed last month how agents had also burgled the rooms of BAe executives at a meeting in France.
A source in Paris with links to French intelligence said: "It is not fair to say that France is constantly listening to British or Oerrhan companies, but there may be times when certain areas might be targeted."
Although officially European Union nations are not supposed to spy on one another, most have what one Whitehall official described as "a healthy interesf` in one another`s commercial plans.
sunday times Sunday, January 23, 2000