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Overview Edit

ECHELON is a name used in global media and in popular culture to describe a signals intelligence collection and analysis network operated on behalf of the five signatory states to the UKUSA agreement — Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States (known as AUSCANZUKUS). The system has been reported in a number of public sources.[1] It was reportedly set up in 1971 as an electronic monitoring system during the Cold War.


Capabilities Edit

Its capabilities and political implications were investigated by a committee of the European Parliament during 2000 and 2001 with a report published in 2001.[8] In its report, the European Parliament states that the term ECHELON is used in a number of contexts, but that the evidence presented indicates that it was the name for a signals intelligence collection system. The report concluded that, on the basis of evidence presented, ECHELON was capable of interception and content inspection of telephone calls, faxes, e-mail and other data traffic globally through the interception of communication bearers including satellite transmission, public switched telephone networks and microwave links. The committee further concluded that "the technical capabilities of the system are probably not nearly as extensive as some sections of the media had assumed."

The ability to intercept communications depends on the medium used, be it radio, satellite, microwave, cellular or fiber optic. During World War II and through the 1950s, high frequency ("short wave") radio was widely used for military and diplomatic communication[2] and could be intercepted at great distances. The rise of geostationary communications satellites in the 1960s presented new possibilities for intercepting international communications.

The report to the European Parliament of 2001 states:

If UKUSA states operate listening stations in the relevant regions of the earth, in principle they can intercept all telephone, fax and data traffic transmitted via such satellites.

Many, if not most reports on ECHELON focus on satellite interception.[3]

The role of satellites in point-to-point voice and data communications has largely been supplanted by fiber optics. As of 2006, 99% of the world's long-distance voice and data traffic is carried over optical fiber cables.[4] The proportion of international communications accounted for by satellite links is said to have decreased substantially over the past few years in Central Europe to amount to between 0.4% and 5%. Even in less developed parts of the world, communication satellites are used largely for point-to-multipoint applications, such as video.[5] Thus the majority of communications cannot be intercepted by earth stations, but only by tapping cables and intercepting radio signals, which is possible only to a limited extent.

One approach is to place intercept equipment at locations where fiber optic communications are switched. For the Internet, much of the switching occurs at a relatively small number of sites. There have been reports of one such intercept site, Room 641A, in the United States. In the past, much Internet traffic was routed through the U.S. and the UK. However this is less true today. Thus for a worldwide surveillance network to be comprehensive, either illegal intercept sites would be required on the territory of friendly nations or cooperation of local authorities would be needed. The report to the European Parliament points out that interception of private communications by foreign intelligence services is not necessarily limited to the U.S. or British foreign intelligence services.

Controversy Edit

Reportedly created to monitor the military and diplomatic communications of the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc allies during the Cold War in the early 1960s, today ECHELON is believed to search also for hints of terrorist plots, drug-dealers' plans, and political and diplomatic intelligence. But some critics, including the European Union committee that commissioned the EU report, claim the system is also being used for large-scale commercial theft, inter-nation economic espionage and invasion of privacy.

British journalist Duncan Campbell and New Zealand Journalist Nicky Hager asserted in the 1990s that the United States was exploiting ECHELON traffic for industrial espionage, rather than military and diplomatic purposes.[6]

The European Parliament Special Committee reported that information gathered on ECHELON may have helped the United States beat the European Airbus Consortium in selling aircraft to Saudi Arabia in 1994.[7] In 1995, France expelled five American diplomats and other officials, reportedly including the Paris station chief for the CIA, because of suspected industrial espionage activities linked to ECHELON.[8] The State Department denied that the U.S. government was engaged in industrial espionage. However, former director of the CIA, James Woolsey, has reportedly justified the possibility of industrial espionage by the United States on the basis of the use of bribery by European companies. Officials of the European Parliament reportedly expressed outrage about the justification, while not denying that bribery is sometimes used to make sales.[9]

In 2001, the Temporary Committee on the ECHELON Interception System recommended to the European Parliament that citizens of member states routinely use cryptography in their communications to protect their privacy.

Total Information Awareness program Edit

The proposed U.S.-only "Total Information Awareness" program relied on technology similar to that supposedly used by ECHELON, and is believed to have been intended to integrate the extensive sources it is legally permitted to survey domestically with the "taps" already supposedly compiled by ECHELON. It was canceled by the U.S. Congress in 2004. It was later discovered in 2005 that the CIA was developing a data mining program with similar aims called "Tangram." A United States Air Force procurement document stated that the system will build on work by the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies "developing systems, tools and algorithms to detect international terrorist activities and planned events" which have developed "methods of . . . efficiently searching large data stores for evidence of known (terrorist) behaviors."[10]

It has been alleged that in 2002 the Bush Administration extended the ECHELON program to domestic surveillance.[11]

References Edit

  1. One of the earliest was a New Statesman article entitled "Someone's Listening" in 1988.
  2. David Kahn, The Codebreakers: The Comprehensive History of Secret Communication from Ancient Times to the Internet, chs. 10, 11 (1996).
  3. For example: Nicky Hager Appearance before the European Parliament ECHELON Committee (Feb. 7, 2006).
  4. NSA eavesdropping: How It Might Work, CNET (Aug. 27, 2006).
  5. Commercial Geostationary Satellite Transponder Markets for Latin America: Market Research Report (Aug. 27, 2006).
  6. Nicky Hager Appearance before the European Parliament ECHELON Committee (July 2, 2006).
  7. Ron Pemstein, “Europe Spy System,”, Mar. 30, 2000.[1]; Paul Meller, “European Parliament Adopts ‘Echelon’ Report,”, Sept. 7, 2001.[2]
  8. Chris Marsden, “European Union to Investigate US-Run Satellite Spy Network,” World Socialist Website, July 10, 2000.[3]
  9. European Parliament resolution on the existence of a global system for the interception of private and commercial communications (ECHELON interception system) (2001/2098(INI)), European Parliament approved on September 5, 2001, by 367 votes for, 159 against, and 39 abstentions.[4]; Gerhard SCHMID Report on the existence of a global system for the interception of private and commercial communications (ECHELON interception system), Doc.: A5-0264/2001, May 9, 2001.[5]; James Woolsey, Intelligence Gathering and Democracies: The Issue of Economic and Industrial Espionage, Federation of American Scientists, Mar. 7, 2000.[6]
  10. Shaun Waterman, Analysis: 'Total Information' lives again. UPI Security and Terrorism Analysis (Oct. 26, 2006).[7]
  11. Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts (July 2, 2006).

Source Edit

External links Edit

  • European Parliament, Motion for Resolution on Echelon (July 4, 2001) (full-text).
  • Minutes of meeting and Echelon resolution of the European Parliament (Sept. 5, 2001) (full-text).
  • Report on the existence of a global system for the interception of private and commercial communications (ECHELON interception system) (2001/2098(INI)) (Sept. 7, 2001) (full-text).

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