Echelon, the globe-spanning information-sucking vacuum of a SIGINT/COMINT system, is most likely a terminology in the vocabulary of just about anyone who fits into the category of "Giving A Damn" - be it about their nation, the world, or their privacy. Some of the terms and technologies involved in Echelon are unfamiliar to the vast majority of those interested; except computer science majors and mathematicians. It's relatively simple, for instance, to imagine telephone calls, e-mails, facsimiles, or perhaps even telegraphs, being intercepted by a law enforcement agent seeking critical proof of a violation. However, wrapping one's head about the idea of a massive, automated, SIGINT & COMINT (or "Signals Intelligence", "Communications Intelligence") system just might be a bit more complicated. Who built it? How does it work? What exactly do they use it for? This article aims to offer some worthwhile propositions to these touchy questions.
However, it might be helpful to begin by summarising some of the organisations and nation-states complicit in Echelon's creation and institution, providing a bit of political history to frame the rest.
Bear in mind, that while the information contained in this article is widely agreed upon by numerous sources, Echelon is, by nature, "Top Secret". No one really knows for sure, and however compelling the information available is, it stills falls into the categories of conjecture and hypothesis.
The original draft outlining Echelon was fairly simple. The system was designed to intercept international communications traversing satellites, and it was the brainchild of NSA officials. Due to the horizon of the earth and the positioning of satellites utilised to relay communications, Echelon required the involvement of geologically diverse countries to effectively trap most communication. As it is, intercepting signals on a round surface is a tricky matter, indeed.
In 1947, a classified agreement referred to as 'The UK/USA Agreement' was drafted, bonding British and American efforts to gather and process intelligence information. It is rumoured that a tag-team style of co-operation began with this agreement and the technologies it heralded, wherein the respective countries could easily gather information on their own citizens. A US agent desiring intelligence on a US citizen would simply partner up with a British agent, and request the British agent cull the data. Once a report was generated, it could simply be handed over to the US agent, circumventing whatever standards might be in place to prevent this sort of investigation targeting ostensibly innocent individuals in their home countries. Clearly, the potential for this sort of interaction is a wide-open door. One might expect this to be one of the package-standard benefits of associating with the Echelon program.
Shortly following the inception of the UK/USA agreement, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand were accepted as partnering countries. Soon thereafter, Norway, Denmark, Germany, and Turkey became 'Third-party' participants. Clearly, Echelon's massive ear canal picks up a vast amount of information, and it is argued that this information is not restricted to international satellite communications. Britain was said to be responsible for monitoring Africa and Europe, as Far East as the Ural Mountains. Canada took up responsibility for the region nearest the North Pole, and Australia was responsible for Oceania, leaving the US to manage most of North and South America.
In recent years (meaning the last two decades), Echelon's capabilities have undoubtedly increased, with the inception of unencrypted global Wide-Area Networks, fibre-optic communications, ever-growing POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) networks, and the common use of massive, globe-spanning Internet Service Providers. In fact, it has also been argued that the 'new' Carnivore system is merely an attempt to publicise already common practices.
It has also been indicated that Echelon itself comprises only a small portion of a much larger whole - the portion responsible for satellite intercepts, to be specific. However, for the purposes of this article, we'll use the definition fingering Echelon as an omniscient global surveillance system.
Either way, Echelon has been the eye at the storm of a considerable controversy. The European Parliament has produced a document assessing modern day political weapons and tools - Echelon included - yet the US government insists on remaining mum, withholding explanation - reassuring or otherwise. Many citizens of many countries see this situation as insulting and invasive, and there is no sign of change on the horizon.
This reaction on the part of the US Intelligence community has sparked substantial distrust in other countries. One of the sites rumoured to be a bit of a hub in the Echelon network is Menwith Hill, in England - owned and maintained by the GHCQ. This location has been the target of numerous protests related to privacy, clearly contains a great deal of surveillance equipment, and has been on the receiving end of many accusatory glances cast by high-level officials touring the facility.
They are apparently not happy with what they see.
It is alleged that Echelon is used as much for economic leverage as it is for political or law-enforcement ends, and this, again, raises a cry of arms from various corporations and individuals. These entities, who are based in countries believed to be at the business end of an especially surreptitious form of industrial espionage, are not taking fond to the idea of having their transactions monitored and possibly sabotaged.
To this day, no one (able to speak publicly) has a thorough understanding of Echelon's inner workings. While there are rumours, assumptions, and impressive investigative work offering propositions as to how this system might function, there is no final authority. The only argument against the idea of Echelon being the holy of the holies in top-secret circles is the fact that anyone knows about it, at all. It is clear, however, that the sort of precise information a concerned individual might be looking for will be difficult to come by.
"Every month it intercepts about 100 million of the messages transmitted via Intelsat satellites and other satellite networks"
-'Scandalous Echelon', Elmar Gusseinov, Izvestia
"The NSA won't discuss the report or even admit that the listening post [Menwith Hill] exists"
-'NSA Listening Practices Called European Threat', Neal Thompson, Baltimore Sun (Referring to the STOA report)
"Instead of investigating crime (which is reactive) law enforcement agencies are increasingly tracking certain social classes and races of people living in the red-lined areas before any crime is commited"
-'An Appraisal of the Technologies of Political Control', STOA, EU
Frances Farmer [e-mail]
F.A.S. (Federation of American Scientists)
An Appraisal of the Technologies of Political Control
Also, articles quoted, mentioned above.
Discuss this article: Underground: Switchboard