The European Parliament today adopted a report that says the global electronic surveillance network known as Echelon does indeed exist.

Some 367 members of the European Parliament voted to support the report — several years in the making — while 159 voted against and 34 members abstained at the Parliament's plenary session in Strasbourg, France.

"This is a big step forward," said Ole Schmidt, a Swiss MEP. "This is a damned important exercise in democracy. Now that a political body has revealed the existence of Echelon we can put an end to the years of rumours upon the subject."

The report, published earlier this year, failed to produce hard evidence that the US is using the global telecomms-tapping network to conduct industrial espionage. "It is frequently maintained that Echelon has been used in this way but no such case has been substantiated," the report says.

However, the document lists several examples where intelligence officers are believed to have interfered in a commercial contract. It claims that European aircraft maker Airbus had its lines tapped in 1994 while negotiating a $6bn contract with the Saudi Arabian government and national airline.

The committee leading the Echelon investigation concludes that the spying network is mainly limited to satellite communications, so a majority of telecommunication signals distributed terrestrially in Europe cannot be tapped with the network.

"Echelon states have access to only a very limited proportion of cable and radio communications and, owing to the large numbers of personnel required, can analyse only a limited proportion of those communications," the report says. Echelon was set up by the US, with the UK, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, according to the report.

Despite Echelon's limitations, the European Parliament believes that by listening to Europeans' email, fax or telephone messages, the US is breaching the European Convention on Human Rights. US National Security Agency officials in the UK and Germany are believed to be listening to messages. The Parliament urges US Convention compliance.

It also recommends that all email be encrypted and calls for national European governments and the European Union to "support projects aimed at developing user-friendly open-source encryption software, as this is the only way of guaranteeing that no backdoors are built into programs".

The European Parliament endorsement of the report will help speed efforts by the EC and EU member states to tighten telecom security, Schmidt said.

"Although national governments in Europe and the US are not obliged to respond to this report, I think many will. The power of the European Parliament is limited, but in some areas it is growing," he said. "In terms of forming public opinion we are a strong political body — this report is an illustration of that."