ECHELON is a code word for an automated global interception and relay system operated by the intelligence agencies in five nations: the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand (it is rumored that different nations have different code words for the project). While the United States National Security Agency (NSA) takes the lead, ECHELON works in conjunction with other intelligence agencies, including the Australian Defence Signals Directorate (DSD). It is believed that ECHELON also works with Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and the agencies of other allies of the United States, pursuant to various treaties. (1)
These countries coordinate their activities pursuant to the UKUSA agreement, which dates back to 1947. The original ECHELON dates back to 1971. However, its capabilities and priorities have expanded greatly since its formation. According to reports, it is capable of intercepting and processing many types of transmissions, throughout the globe. In fact, it has been suggested that ECHELON may intercept as many as 3 billion communications everyday, including phone calls, e-mail messages, Internet downloads, satellite transmissions, and so on. (2) The ECHELON system gathers all of these transmissions indiscriminately, then distills the information that is most heavily desired through artificial intelligence programs. Some sources have claimed that ECHELON sifts through an estimated 90 percent of all traffic that flows through the Internet. (3)
However, the exact capabilities and goals of ECHELON remain unclear. For example, it is unknown whether ECHELON actually targets domestic communications. Also, it is apparently very difficult for ECHELON to intercept certain types of transmissions, particularly fiber communications.
Q - How does ECHELON work?
ECHELON apparently collects data in several ways. Reports suggest it has massive ground based radio antennae to intercept satellite transmissions. In addition, some sites reputedly are tasked with tapping surface traffic. These antennae reportedly are in the United States, Italy, England, Turkey, New Zealand, Canada, Australia, and several other places. (4)
Similarly, it is believed that ECHELON uses numerous satellites to catch "spillover" data from transmissions between cities. These satellites then beam the information down to processing centers on the ground. The main centers are in the United States (near Denver), England (Menwith Hill), Australia, and Germany. (5)
According to various sources, ECHELON also routinely intercepts Internet transmissions. The organization allegedly has installed numerous "sniffer" devices. These "sniffers" collect information from data packets as they traverse the Internet via several key junctions. It also uses search software to scan for web sites that may be of interest. (6)
Furthermore, it is believed that ECHELON has even used special underwater devices which tap into cables that carry phone calls across the seas. According to published reports, American divers were able to install surveillance devices on to the underwater cables. One of these taps was discovered in 1982, but other devices apparently continued to function undetected. (7)
It is not known at this point whether ECHELON has been able to tap fiber optic phone cables.
Finally, if the aforementioned methods fail to garner the desired information, there is another alternative. Apparently, the nations that are involved with ECHELON also train special agents to install a variety of special data collection devices. One of these devices is reputed to be an information processing kit that is the size of a suitcase. Another such item is a sophisticated radio receiver that is as small as a credit card. (8)
After capturing this raw data, ECHELON sifts through them using DICTIONARY. DICTIONARY is actually a special system of computers which find pertinent information by searching for key words, addresses, etc. These search programs help pare down the voluminous quantity of transmissions which pass through the ECHELON network every day. These programs also seem to enable users to focus on any specific subject upon which information is desired. (9)
Q - If ECHELON is so powerful, why haven't I heard about it before?
The United States government has gone to extreme lengths to keep ECHELON a secret. To this day, U.S. government refuses to admit that ECHELON even exists. We know it exists because both the governments of Australia (through its Defence Signals Directorate) and New Zealand have admitted to this fact. (10) However, even with this revelation, U.S. officials have refused to comment.
This "wall of silence" is beginning to erode. The first report on ECHELON was published in 1988. (11) In addition, besides the revelations from Australia, the Scientific and Technical Options Assessment program office (STOA) of the European Parliament commissioned two reports which describe ECHELON's activities. These reports unearthed a startling amount of evidence, which suggests that ECHELON's powers may have been underestimated. The first report, entitled "An Appraisal of Technologies of Political Control", suggested that ECHELON primarily targeted civilians.
This report found that:
The most recent report, known as "Interception Capabilities 2000", describes ECHELON capabilities in even more elaborate detail. (13)
In addition, an Italian government official has begun to investigate Echelon's intelligence-gathering efforts, based on the belief that the organization may be spying on European citizens in violation of Italian or international law. (14)
The Danish Parliament also has begun an inquiry.
Events in the United States have also indicated that the "wall of silence" might not last much longer. Exercising their Constitutionally created oversight authority, members of the House Select Committee on Intelligence recently started asking questions about the legal basis for NSA's ECHELON activities. In particular, the Committee wanted to know if the communications of Americans were being intercepted and under what authority, since US law severely limits the ability of the intelligence agencies to engage in domestic surveillance. When asked about its legal authority, NSA invoked the attorney-client privilege and refused to disclose the legal standards by which ECHELON might have conducted its activities. (15)
President Clinton has now signed into law a funding bill which requires the NSA to report on the legal basis for ECHELON and similar activities. (16)
In addition, Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA), who has taken the lead in Congressional efforts to ferret out the truth about ECHELON, has arranged for the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee to hold oversight hearings.(17)
Finally, the Electronic Privacy Information (EPIC) has sued the U.S. Government, hoping to obtain documents which would describe the legal standards by which ECHELON operates.(18)
Q - What is being done with the information that ECHELON collects?
The original purpose of ECHELON was to protect national security. That purpose continues today. For example, we know that ECHELON is gathering information on North Korea. Sources from Australia's DSD have disclosed this much because Australian officials help operate the facilities there which scan through transmissions, looking for pertinent material. (19)
However, national security is not ECHELON's only concern. Reports have indicated that industrial espionage has become a part of ECHELON's activities. While present information seems to suggest that only high-ranking government officials have direct control over ECHELON's tasks, the information that is gained may be passed along at the discretion of these very same officials. As a result, much of this information has been given to American companies, in apparent attempts to give these companies an edge over their less knowledgeable counterparts. (20)
In addition, there are concerns that ECHELON's actions may be used to stifle political dissent. Many of these concerns were voiced in a report commissioned by the European Parliament. What is more, there are no known safeguards to prevent such abuses of power. (21)
Q - Is there any evidence that ECHELON is doing anything improper or illegal with the spying resources at its disposal?
ECHELON is a highly classified operation, which is conducted with little or no oversight by national parliaments or courts. Most of what is known comes from whistleblowers and classified documents. The simple truth is that there is no way to know precisely what ECHELON is being used for.
But there is evidence, much of which is circumstantial, that ECHELON (along with its British counterpart) has been engaged in significant invasions of privacy. These alleged violations include secret surveillance of political organizations, such as Amnesty International. (22) It has also been reported that ECHELON has engaged in industrial espionage on various private companies such as Airbus Industries and Panavia, then has passed along the information to their American competitors. (23) It is unclear just how far ECHELON's activities have harmed private individuals.
However, the most sensational revelation was that Diana, Princess of Wales may have come under ECHELON surveillance before she died. As reported in the Washington Post, the NSA admitted that they possessed files on the Princess, partly composed of intercepted phone conversations. While one official from the NSA claimed that the Princess was never a direct target, this disclosure seems to indicates the intrusive, yet surreptitious manner by which ECHELON operates. (24)
What is even more disquieting is that, if these allegations are proven to be true, the NSA and its compatriot organizations may have circumvented countless laws in numerous countries. Many nations have laws in place to prevent such invasions of privacy. However, there are suspicions that ECHELON has engaged in subterfuge to avoid these legal restrictions. For example, it is rumored that nations would not use their own agents to spy on their own citizens, but assign the task to agents from other countries. (25) In addition, as mentioned earlier, it is unclear just what legal standards ECHELON follows, if any actually exist. Thus, it is difficult to say what could prevent ECHELON from abusing its remarkable capabilities.
Q - Is everyone else doing what ECHELON does?
Maybe not everyone else, but there are plenty of other countries that engage in the type of intelligence gathering that ECHELON performs. These countries apparently include Russia, France, Israel, India, Pakistan and many others. (26) Indeed, the excesses of these ECHELON-like operations are rumored to be similar in form to their American equivalents, including digging up information for private companies to give them a commercial advantage.
However, it is also known that ECHELON system is the largest of its kind. What is more, its considerable powers are enhanced through the efforts of America's allies, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Other countries don't have the resources to engage in the massive garnering of information that the United States is carrying out.
1. Development of Surveillance Technology and Risk of Abuse of Economic Information (An appraisal of technologies for political control), Part 4/4: The state of the art in Communications Intelligence (COMINT) of automated processing for intelligence purposes of intercepted broadband multi-language leased or common carrier systems, and its applicability to COMINT targeting and selection, including speech recognition, Ch. 1, para. 5, PE 168.184 / Part 4/4 (April 1999). See Duncan Campbell, Interception Capabilities 2000 (April 1999) (http://www.iptvreports.mcmail.com/stoa_cover.htm).
2. Kevin Poulsen, Echelon Revealed, ZDTV (June 9, 1999) (http://www.zdnet.com/zdtv/cybercrime/chaostheory/story/0,3700,2120457,00.html).
3. Greg Lindsay, The Government Is Reading Your E-Mail, TIME DIGITAL DAILY (June 24, 1999) (http://www.pathfinder.com/time/digital/daily/0,2822,27293,00.html).
4. PE 168.184 / Part 4/4, supra note 1, Ch. 2, para. 32-34, 45-46.
5. Id. Ch. 2, para. 42.
6. Id. Ch. 2, para. 60.
7. Id. Ch. 2, para. 50.
8. Id. Ch. 2, para. 62-63.
9. An Appraisal of Technologies for Political Control, at 20, PE 166.499 (January 6, 1998). See Steve Wright, An Appraisal of Technologies for Political Control (January 6, 1998) (http://cryptome.org/stoa-atpc.htm).
10. Letter from Martin Brady, Director, Defence Signals Directorate, to Ross Coulhart, Reporter, Nine Network Australia 2 (Mar. 16, 1999) (on file at http://sunday.ninemsn.com.au/sunday_images/cover/DSD_page1.gif and http://sunday.ninemsn.com.au/sunday_images/cover/DSD_page2.gif; see also Calls for inquiry into spy bases, ONE NEWS (Dec. 28, 1999) (http://onenews.co.nz/Politics/1999/12/28/00014302.htm).
11. Duncan Campbell, Somebody's listening, NEW STATESMAN, 12 August 1988, Cover, pages 10-12. See Duncan Campbell, ECHELON: NSA's Global Electronic Interception, (last visited October 12, 1999) (http://jya.com/echelon-dc.htm).
12. PE 166.499, supra note 9, at 19-20.
13. PE 168.184 / Part 4/4, supra note 1.
14. Nicholas Rufford, Spy Station F83, SUNDAY TIMES (London), May 31, 1998. See Nicholas Rufford, Spy Station F83 (May 31, 1998) (http://www.sunday-times.co.uk/news/pages/sti/98/05/31/stifocnws01003.html?999).
15. H. Rep. No. 106-130 (1999). See Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000, Additional Views of Chairman Porter J. Goss, (last visited August 24, 1999) (http://www.echelonwatch.org/goss.htm).
16. Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000, Pub. L. 106-120, Section 309, 113 Stat. 1605, 1613 (1999). See H.R. 1555 Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000 (Enrolled Bill (Sent to President)), (last visited Dec. 17, 1999) (http://www.echelonwatch.org/hr1555c.htm).
17. House Committee to Hold Privacy Hearings, (August 16, 1999) (http://www.house.gov/barr/p_081699.html).
18. ELECTRONIC PRIVACY INFORMATION CENTER, PRESS RELEASE: LAWSUIT SEEKS MEMOS ON SURVEILLANCE OF AMERICANS; EPIC LAUNCHES STUDY OF NSA INTERCEPTION ACTIVITIES (1999). See also Electronic Privacy Information Center, EPIC Sues for NSA Surveillance Memos (last visited December 17, 1999) (http://www.epic.org/open_gov/foia/nsa_suit_12_99.html).
19. Ross Coulhart, Echelon System: FAQs and website links, (May 23, 1999) (http://sunday.ninemsn.com.au/sun_bg2.asp?id=817).
20. PE 168.184 / Part 4/4, supra note 1, Ch. 5, para. 101-103.
21. PE 166.499, supra note 9, at 20.
23. PE 168.184 / Part 4/4, supra note 1, Ch. 5, para. 101-102.
24. Vernon Loeb, NSA Admits to Spying on Princess Diana, WASHINGTON POST, December 12, 1998, at A13. See Vernon Loeb, NSA Admits to Spying on Princess Diana, WASHINGTON POST, A13 (December 12, 1998) (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/daily/dec98/diana12.htm).
25. Ross Coulhart, Big Brother is listening, (May 23, 1999) (http://sunday.ninemsn.com/sun_cover2.asp?id=818).
26. PE 168.184 / Part 4/4, supra note 1, Ch. 1, para. 7.
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