Echelon Surveillance System Threatens U.S. Privacy Rights

Echelon Surveillance System Threatens U.S. Privacy Rights – Government Activity

The ECHELON system, maintained as a top secret electronic communications surveillance intelligence gathering system by the National Security Agency (NSA), is currently considered the most powerful in the world.

What is known about the system is that ECHELON attempts to capture “staggering” volumes of satellite, microwave, cellular and fiber optic traffic, fax and email, including communications to and from North America. The information is then “filtered” using voice and image technologies looking for code words or phrases (known as the “ECHELON dictionaries”) in messages that later will be analyzed.

Although ECHELON is led by the U.S.’s NSA, it is coordinated by other allied countries such as the intelligence agencies of England, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

According to the “echelonwatch” Web site (, this massive surveillance system apparently operates with little oversight, and agencies that purported run ECHELON have provided few details as to the legal guidelines for the project. Because of this, there is no way of knowing if ECHELON is being used illegally to spy on private U.S. citizens.

In the U.K., ECHELON has already been accused of politically spying on charities such as Amnesty International. It has also been accused of industrial espionage on various private companies such as Airbus Industries and Panavia, then the information passed on to American competitors.

The CBS television program “60 Minutes” aired a segment about ECHELON on Sunday, February 7 this year. The report was a little too scary and too close to home for most Americans.

In April 1999, the ACLU sent a letter to Rep. Dan Burton, and Henry A. Waxman concerning possible illegal use of the ECHELON system.

By its very nature, according to the ACLU, ECHELON may involve the interception of communications involving Americans in the U.S., without a court order. Although The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act prohibits interception of certain communications for intelligence purposes without a court order unless the Attorney General certifies that certain conditions are met. These conditions include a limitation that, “there is no substantial likelihood that the surveillance will acquire the contents of any communication to which a United States person is a party.” — But the ACLU said in its letter that the ECHELON system covers such a wide spectrum of communications “as to virtually nullify the objective of this limitation.”

The ACLU has urged Congressional hearings on ECHELON.

In August 1999, Rep. Barr did succeed in amending the FY2000 Foreign Intelligence Authorization Act to require the NSA, CIA, and Department of Justice to submit a report to Congress detailing the legal standards they use when they eavesdrop on American citizens. To date, no report or mention of such a report to Congress has been made known publicly. The only report that NSA did submit was entitled “Legal Standards for the Intelligence Community”, gave few details about ECHELON’s operations and legality.

U.S. officials even refuse to admit that ECHELON exists.

Other countries that employ extensive electronic surveillance include Russia, France, Israel, India, Pakistan, Peoples Republic of China, Germany, and many others.

More information about ECHELON is available and being constantly updated at:

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