In a public hearing yesterday the Dutch Parliament discussed the eavesdropping system Echelon, which is widely reputed to clandestinely monitor global-telecoms traffic at the behest of the US and other English-speaking countries.

A letter from the Dutch Defence Ministry to the Parliament on Friday, acknowledged the existence of the system, though none of the governments believed to be involved - including the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand - have admitted to its existence. Other countries are concerned that the system is being used for industrial espionage, allegations the US and UK governments have rejected.

"The Dutch government does not have access to confirmed information about the existence of Echelon from the governments that have been named in connection with it. However, this can be assumed due to currently available information, studies and public sources," said the ministry.

The ministry referred to investigations of Echelon undertaken by the Belgian and French parliaments, as well as to a special temporary committee set up last year by the European Parliament.

The ministry's letter went on to warn that communications networks are at risk of monitoring not only by state agencies, but also by private citizens, businesses and organized crime.