ECHELON is the largest electronic spy network in history, run by the United States, the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, capturing telephone calls, faxes and e-mails around the world. ECHELON is estimated to intercept up to 3 billion communications every day.
The proposed US-only "Total Information Awareness" program relies on technology similar to ECHELON, and if implemented may integrate the extensive sources it is legally permitted to survey domestically, with the "taps" already compiled by ECHELON.
Allegedly created to monitor the military and diplomatic communications of the Soviet Union and its East Bloc allies, ECHELON is today believed to also search for hints of terrorist plots, drug-dealers' plans, and political and diplomatic intelligence. But some critics claim the system is also being used for commercial theft and invasion of privacy on a staggering scale.
The members of the English-speaking alliance are part of the UKUSA intelligence alliance that has maintained ties in collecting and sharing intelligence since World War II. Various sources claim that these states have positioned electronic-intercept stations and deep-space satellites to capture most radio, satellite, microwave, cellular and fibre-optic communications traffic. The captured signals are then processed through a series of supercomputers, known as dictionaries, that are programmed to search each communication for targeted addresses, words, phrases or even individual voices.
Individual states in the UKUSA alliance are assigned responsibilities for monitoring different parts of the globe. Canada's main task used to be monitoring northern portions of the former Soviet Union and conducting sweeps of all communications traffic that could be picked up from embassies around the world. In the post-Cold War era, a greater emphasis has been placed on monitoring satellite and radio and cellphone traffic originating from Central and South America, primarily in an effort to track drugs and thugs in the region. The United States, with its vast array of spy satellites and listening posts, monitors most of Latin America, Asia, Asiatic Russia and northern China. Britain listens in on Europe and Russia west of the Urals as well as Africa. Australia hunts for communications originating in Indochina, Indonesia and southern China. New Zealand sweeps the western Pacific.
Supporters stress that ECHELON is simply a method of sorting captured signals and is just one of the many arrows in the intelligence community's quiver, along with increasingly sophisticated bugging and communications interception techniques, satellite tracking, through-clothing scanning, automatic fingerprinting and recognition systems that can recognize genes, odours or retina patterns.
The Americans are believed to dominate the UKUSA alliance, providing most of the computer expertise and frequently much of the personnel for global interception bases. The U.S. National Security Agency, with headquarters at Fort Meade, Md., just outside Washington, DC, has a global staff of 38,000 and a budget estimated at more than US$3.6-billion. That's more than the FBI and the CIA combined (both are also US government security agencies).
By comparison, Canada's communications-intelligence operations are conducted by the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), a branch of the Canadian Department of National Defence. It has a staff of 890 people and an annual budget of $110-million (Cdn). The CSE's headquarters, nicknamed "The Farm," is the Sir Leonard Tilley Building on Heron Road in the nation's capital of Ottawa, Ontario, and its main communications intercept site is located on an old armed-forces radio base in Leitrim, just south of Ottawa.
The governments of Australia, New Zealand, and the Netherlands have already confirmed that ECHELON exists (though not specifying any details of its capabilities or operations). Furthermore, former CIA Director R. James Woolsey has admitted using the system to uncover information about foreign companies using bribes to win contracts. The information was passed on to US companies and foreign governments were pressed to stop the bribes. Media coverage of a couple such events tended to give the impression that ECHELON was used to give foreign companies' trade secrets to US companies.
In May 2001 the European Union produced a report (http://cryptome.org/echelon-ep.htm) on ECHELON which, amongst other things, recommended that citizens of member states routinely use cryptography in their communications to protect their privacy. In the UK, the government introduced the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act which gives authorities the power to demand that citizens hand over their encryption keys, without a judge-approved warrant. In April 2004, the European Union decided to spend 11 million EUR developing secure communication based on quantum cryptography — the SECOQC project — a system that would theoretically be unbreakable by ECHELON or any other espionage system.
A search of CIA documents contained on the CIA website as a result of Freedom Of Information Act request returns many matches for the keyword "ECHELON", further confirming the existence of the system.
Echelon monitoring of mobile phones in Pakistan was reportedly used to track Khalid Sheikh Mohammed before he was arrested in Rawalpindi on March 1, 2003.
The limits of a large system such as ECHELON are defined by its very size. Though the system intercepts 3 billion communications daily, clients must know which intercepted communications to monitor before they can realize an intelligence advantage. For example, in the months prior to the September 11 attacks on the United States, signal intelligence produced by ECHELON developed considerable "chatter", or snippets of dialogue, that suggested some sort of attack was imminent. Analysts were unable to pin down the details of the attack, though, because operatives planning the attack relied largely on non-electronic communications. Even overt signals, such as a dramatic increase in futures trading related to companies that were to be damaged in the attack, failed to alert analysts, apparently because they did not know where within the daily deluge of electronic messages to look, much less how to connect the dots pointing to a specific attack.
Prior to the September 11, 2001 attacks and the legislation which followed it, US intelligence agencies were generally prohibited from spying on people inside the US and some foreign intelligence services faced similar restrictions within their own countries. There are allegations, however, that ECHELON and the UKUSA alliance were used to circumvent these restrictions by, for example, having the UK facilities spy on people inside the US and the US facilites spy on people in the UK, with the agencies exchanging data (perhaps even automatically through the ECHELON system without human intervention).
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