‘Echelon’ spells trouble for global communications

‘Echelon’ spells trouble for global communications

Poole, Patrick

A report by the European Parliament last May brought renewed international interest in an electronic interception network used by the major Anglo nations. Here is the fust ofa two-part report on it by Patrick Poole, formerly Deputy Director of Technology Policy at the Free Congress Foundation in Washington D. C. He is now a lecturer in government and economics at Bannockburn College in Franklin, Tenn. Poole’s original two-part series, which appeared in NEXUS New Times magazine this summer(www.icom.net/~nexus/), is on-line at http://fly.hiwaay.net/~pspoole/echelon.html.

In the greatest surveillance effort ever established, the US National Security Agency (NSA) has created a global spy system, code name ECHELON, which captures and analyzes most forms of electronic communications sent anywhere in the world.

ECHELON is controlled by NSA and is operated in conjunction with the General Communications Head Quarters (GCHQ) of England, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) of Canada, the Australian Defense Security Directorate (DSD), and the General Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) of New Zealand. These organizations are bound together under a 1948 agreement, UKUSA, a secret cooperative alliance whose existence was recognized only earlier this year by Australian officials.

The ECHELON system is fairly simple in design: position intercept stations all over the world to capture all satellite, microwave, cellular and fiber-optic communications traffic, and then process this information through the massive computer capabilities of NSA. This processing includes advanced voice recognition and optical character recognition (OCR) programs, so that the existence of certain words or phrases (known as the ECHELON Dictionary) will prompt computers to flag the message for recording and transcribing for future analysis. Intelligence analysts at each of the respective listening stations maintain separate key word lists for them to analyze any conversation or document flagged by the system. The communication is then forwarded to the respective intelligence agency headquarters that requested the intercept.

But apart from directing its ears towards terrorists and rogue states, ECHELON is also being used for purposes well outside its original mission. The discovery of domestic surveillance targeted at civilians has led many civil liberties advocates around the world to call for governmental inquiries into the use of ECHELON installations to determine whether they violate domestic constitutional protections and international agreements.

The abuses associated with ECHELON fall into two broad categories:

Political spying: Despite the investigations into the domestic and political surveillance activities of American intelligence-gathering agencies that followed from the Watergate scandals, NSA continues to target the political activity of unpopular political groups and even elected representatives. One whistle blower charged in a 1988 Cleveland Plain Dealer interview that while stationed in the 1980s at the Menwith Hill facility in northern England, she heard real-time telephone intercepts of South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond. Former Maryland Congressman Michael Barnes also described in a 1995 Baltimore Sun article how he fell victim to ECHELON surveillance, when Reagan Administration officials passed transcripts of his conversations to Washington news media outlets.

In a 1992 London Observer article a former intelligence operative identified Amnesty International, Greenpeace, and even U.S.-based Christian ministries as targets of detailed surveillance by UKUSA agencies.

Commercial espionage: Since the demise of Communism in Eastern Europe, the intelligence agencies have justified the enhancement of their surveillance capability by redefining the official definition of “national security” to include economic, commercial, and corporate spying. To accommodate this new mission, an office was created within the Department of Commerce, the Office of Intelligence Liaison, to forward intercepted materials to major U.S. corporations.

In many cases, the beneficiaries of this commercial espionage effort are the very companies that helped NSA develop the systems that power the ECHELON network. This incestuous relationship is so strong that sometimes this intelligence information is used to push other American manufacturers out of deals in favor of these mammoth U.S. defense and intelligence contractors.

What was once designed to target a select list of communist countries and terrorist states is now indiscriminately directed against virtually every citizen in the world. The European Parliament has launched an investigation to determine whether the ECHELON communications interceptions violate the sovereignty and privacy of citizens in other countries. Its detailed report issued in May is available at www.gn.apc.org/duncan/stoa_cover.htm.

In response to growing media attention in the U.S., a congressional committee will hold hearing this fall into the possible use of signals intelligence systems to conduct domestic surveillance in violation of the Fourth Amendment and federal laws.

The late Senator Frank Church in the 1970s warned that the technology and capability embodied in the ECHELON system represented a direct threat to the liberties of the American people. (A former employee of the Communications Security Establishment in Canada, for instance, asserted this summer that each democracy circumvents domestic legislation prohibiting intelligence agencies from spying on their own citizens. “We do it for them, they do it for us and then they can stand up and say, `We do not target the communications of our own citizens.'”) In the absence of any political oversight, ECHELON and the UKUSA intelligence alliance are being used by the intelligence agencies as tools to extend their reach to subvert the civil protections of the Constitution.

Copyright Privacy Journal Sep 1999

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