Q - What is Project ECHELON?
ECHELON is the term popularly used for an automated global interception
and relay system operated by the intelligence agencies in five nations:
the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand
(it is believed that ECHELON is the code name for the portion of the
system that intercepts satellite-based communications). While the United
States National Security Agency (NSA) takes the lead, ECHELON works
in conjunction with other intelligence agencies, including the Australian
Defence Signals Directorate (DSD). It is believed that ECHELON also
works with Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and
the agencies of other allies of the United States, pursuant to various
These countries coordinate their activities pursuant to the UKUSA agreement,
which dates back to 1947. The original ECHELON dates back to 1971. However,
its capabilities and priorities have expanded greatly since its formation.
According to reports, it is capable of intercepting and processing many
types of transmissions, throughout the globe. In fact, it has been suggested
that ECHELON may intercept as many as 3 billion communications everyday,
including phone calls, e-mail messages, Internet downloads, satellite
transmissions, and so on. (2)
The ECHELON system gathers all of these transmissions indiscriminately,
then distills the information that is most heavily desired through artificial
intelligence programs. Some sources have claimed that ECHELON sifts
through an estimated 90 percent of all traffic that flows through the
However, the exact capabilities and goals of ECHELON remain unclear.
For example, it is unknown whether ECHELON actually targets domestic
communications. Also, it is apparently very difficult for ECHELON to
intercept certain types of transmissions, particularly fiber communications.
Q - How does ECHELON work?
ECHELON apparently collects data in several ways. Reports suggest it
has massive ground based radio antennae to intercept satellite transmissions.
In addition, some sites reputedly are tasked with tapping surface traffic.
These antennae reportedly are in the United States, Italy, England,
Turkey, New Zealand, Canada, Australia, and several other places. (4)
Similarly, it is believed that ECHELON uses numerous satellites to
catch "spillover" data from transmissions between cities. These satellites
then beam the information down to processing centers on the ground.
The main centers are in the United States (near Denver), England (Menwith
Hill), Australia, and Germany. (5)
According to various sources, ECHELON also routinely intercepts Internet
transmissions. The organization allegedly has installed numerous "sniffer"
devices. These "sniffers" collect information from data packets as they
traverse the Internet via several key junctions. It also uses search
software to scan for web sites that may be of interest. (6)
Furthermore, it is believed that ECHELON has even used special underwater
devices which tap into cables that carry phone calls across the seas.
According to published reports, American divers were able to install
surveillance devices on to the underwater cables. One of these taps
was discovered in 1982, but other devices apparently continued to function
It is not known at this point whether ECHELON has been able to tap fiber
optic phone cables.
Finally, if the aforementioned methods fail to garner the desired information,
there is another alternative. Apparently, the nations that are involved
with ECHELON also train special agents to install a variety of special
data collection devices. One of these devices is reputed to be an information
processing kit that is the size of a suitcase. Another such item is
a sophisticated radio receiver that is as small as a credit card. (8)
After capturing this raw data, ECHELON sifts through them using DICTIONARY.
DICTIONARY is actually a special system of computers which finds pertinent
information by searching for key words, addresses, etc. These search
programs help pare down the voluminous quantity of transmissions which
pass through the ECHELON network every day. These programs also seem
to enable users to focus on any specific subject upon which information
is desired. (9)
Q - If ECHELON is so powerful, why haven't I heard about it before?
The United States government has gone to extreme lengths to keep ECHELON
a secret. To this day, the U.S. government refuses to admit that ECHELON
even exists. We know it exists because both the governments of Australia
(through its Defence Signals Directorate) and New Zealand have admitted
to this fact. (10) However, even with
this revelation, U.S. officials have refused to comment.
This "wall of silence" is beginning to erode. The first report on ECHELON
was published in 1988. (11) In addition, besides
the revelations from Australia, the Scientific and Technical Options
Assessment program office (STOA) of the European Parliament commissioned
two reports which describe ECHELON's activities. These reports unearthed
a startling amount of evidence, which suggests that ECHELON's powers
may have been underestimated. The first report, entitled "An Appraisal
of Technologies of Political Control," suggested that ECHELON primarily
This report found that:
"The ECHELON system forms part of the UKUSA system but unlike many
of the electronic spy systems developed during the cold war, ECHELON
is designed for primarily non-military targets: governments, organisations
and businesses in virtually every country. The ECHELON system works
by indiscriminately intercepting very large quantities of communications
and then siphoning out what is valuable using artificial intelligence
aids like Memex to find key words. Five nations share the results with
the US as the senior partner under the UKUSA agreement of 1948, Britain,
Canada, New Zealand and Australia are very much acting as subordinate
"Each of the five centres supply "dictionaries" to the other four
of keywords, phrases, people and places to "tag" and the tagged intercept
is forwarded straight to the requesting country. Whilst there is much
information gathered about potential terrorists, there is a lot of economic
intelligence, notably intensive monitoring of all the countries participating
in the GATT negotiations. But Hager found that by far the main priorities
of this system continued to be military and political intelligence applicable
to their wider interests. Hager quotes from a "highly placed intelligence
operatives" who spoke to the Observer in London. "We feel we
can no longer remain silent regarding that which we regard to be gross
malpractice and negligence within the establishment in which we operate."
They gave as examples. GCHQ interception of three charities, including
Amnesty International and Christian Aid. "At any time GCHQ is able to
home in on their communications for a routine target request," the GCHQ
source said. In the case of phone taps the procedure is known as Mantis.
With telexes its called Mayfly. By keying in a code relating to third
world aid, the source was able to demonstrate telex "fixes" on the three
organisations. With no system of accountability, it is difficult to
discover what criteria determine who is not a target." (12)
The most recent report, known as Interception Capabilities 2000,
describes ECHELON capabilities in even more elaborate detail. (13) The release of the
report sparked accusations from the French government that the United
States was using ECHELON to give American companies an advantage over
rival firms. (14)
In response, R. James Woolsey, the former head of the U.S. Central Intelligence
Agency (CIA), charged that the French government was using bribes to
get lucrative deals around the world, and that U.S. surveillance networks
were used simply to level the playing field. (15)
However, experts have pointed out that Woolsey missed several key points.
For example, Woolsey neglected to mention alleged instances of economic
espionage (cited in Intelligence Capabilities 2000) that did
not involve bribery. Furthermore, many observers expressed alarm with
Woolsey's apparent assertion that isolated incidents of bribery could
justify the wholesale interception of the world's communications. (16)
The European Parliament is now considering several measures with regard
to ECHELON, including a formal Committee of Enquiry and new rules on
personal privacy. (17)
In addition, an Italian government official has begun to investigate
Echelon's intelligence-gathering efforts, based on the belief that the
organization may be spying on European citizens in violation of Italian
or international law. (18)
The Danish Parliament also has begun an inquiry.
Events in the United States have also indicated that the "wall of silence"
might not last much longer. Exercising their Constitutionally created
oversight authority, members of the House Select Committee on Intelligence
recently started asking questions about the legal basis for NSA's ECHELON
activities. In particular, the Committee wanted to know if the communications
of Americans were being intercepted and under what authority, since
US law severely limits the ability of the intelligence agencies to engage
in domestic surveillance. When asked about its legal authority, NSA
invoked the attorney-client privilege and refused to disclose the legal
standards by which ECHELON might have conducted its activities. (19)
President Clinton then signed into law a funding bill which required
the NSA to report on the legal basis for ECHELON and similar activities.
(20) However, the subsequent
report (entitled Legal Standards for the Intelligence Community in
Conducting Electronic Surveillance) gave few details about ECHELON's
operations and legality. (21)
In addition, Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA), who has taken the lead in Congressional
efforts to ferret out the truth about ECHELON, has arranged for the
House Government Reform and Oversight Committee to hold oversight hearings.(22)
Finally, the Electronic Privacy Information Center has sued the U.S.
Government, hoping to obtain documents which would describe the legal
standards by which ECHELON operates.(23)
Q - What is being done with the information that ECHELON collects?
The original purpose of ECHELON was to protect national security. That
purpose continues today. For example, we know that ECHELON is gathering
information on North Korea. Sources from Australia's DSD have disclosed
this much because Australian officials help operate the facilities there
which scan through transmissions, looking for pertinent material. (24)
However, national security is not ECHELON's only concern. Reports have
indicated that industrial espionage has become a part of ECHELON's activities.
While present information seems to suggest that only high-ranking government
officials have direct control over ECHELON's tasks, the information
that is gained may be passed along at the discretion of these very same
officials. As a result, much of this information has been given to American
companies, in apparent attempts to give these companies an edge over
their less knowledgeable counterparts. (25)
In addition, there are concerns that ECHELON's actions may be used
to stifle political dissent. Many of these concerns were voiced in a
report commissioned by the European Parliament. What is more, there
are no known safeguards to prevent such abuses of power. (26)
Q - Is there any evidence that ECHELON is doing anything improper
or illegal with the spying resources at its disposal?
ECHELON is a highly classified operation, which is conducted with little
or no oversight by national parliaments or courts. Most of what is known
comes from whistleblowers and classified documents. The simple truth
is that there is no way to know precisely what ECHELON is being used
But there is evidence, much of which is circumstantial, that ECHELON
(along with its British counterpart) has been engaged in significant
invasions of privacy. These alleged violations include secret surveillance
of political organizations, such as Amnesty International. (27) It has also been
reported that ECHELON has engaged in industrial espionage on various
private companies such as Airbus Industries and Panavia, then has passed
along the information to their American competitors. (28) It is unclear just
how far ECHELON's activities have harmed private individuals.
However, the most sensational revelation was that Diana, Princess of
Wales may have come under ECHELON surveillance before she died. As reported
in the Washington Post, the NSA admitted that they possessed files on
the Princess, partly composed of intercepted phone conversations. While
one official from the NSA claimed that the Princess was never a direct
target, this disclosure seems to indicates the intrusive, yet surreptitious
manner by which ECHELON operates. (29)
What is even more disquieting is that, if these allegations are proven
to be true, the NSA and its compatriot organizations may have circumvented
countless laws in numerous countries. Many nations have laws in place
to prevent such invasions of privacy. However, there are suspicions
that ECHELON has engaged in subterfuge to avoid these legal restrictions.
For example, it is rumored that nations would not use their own agents
to spy on their own citizens, but assign the task to agents from other
countries. (30) In addition, as mentioned
earlier, it is unclear just what legal standards ECHELON follows, if
any actually exist. Thus, it is difficult to say what could prevent
ECHELON from abusing its remarkable capabilities.
Q - Is everyone else doing what ECHELON does?
Maybe not everyone else, but there are plenty of other countries that
engage in the type of intelligence gathering that ECHELON performs.
These countries apparently include Russia, France, Israel, India, Pakistan
and many others. (31) Indeed, the excesses
of these ECHELON-like operations are rumored to be similar in form to
their American equivalents, including digging up information for private
companies to give them a commercial advantage.
However, it is also known that ECHELON system is the largest of its
kind. What is more, its considerable powers are enhanced through the
efforts of America's allies, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia,
and New Zealand. Other countries don't have the resources to engage
in the massive garnering of information that the United States is carrying
1. Development of Surveillance Technology and Risk
of Abuse of Economic Information (An appraisal of technologies for political
control), Part 4/4: The state of the art in Communications Intelligence
(COMINT) of automated processing for intelligence purposes of intercepted
broadband multi-language leased or common carrier systems, and its applicability
to COMINT targeting and selection, including speech recognition,
Ch. 1, para. 5, PE 168.184 / Part 4/4 (April 1999). See Duncan Campbell,
Interception Capabilities 2000 (April 1999) (http://www.iptvreports.mcmail.com/stoa_cover.htm).
2. Kevin Poulsen, Echelon Revealed, ZDTV (June
3. Greg Lindsay, The Government Is Reading Your E-Mail,
TIME DIGITAL DAILY (June 24, 1999) (http://www.pathfinder.com/time/digital/daily/0,2822,27293,00.html).
4. PE 168.184 / Part 4/4, supra note 1, Ch. 2,
para. 32-34, 45-46.
5. Id. Ch. 2, para. 42.
6. Id. Ch. 2, para. 60.
7. Id. Ch. 2, para. 50.
8. Id. Ch. 2, para. 62-63.
9. An Appraisal of Technologies for Political Control,
at 20, PE 166.499 (January 6, 1998). See Steve Wright, An Appraisal
of Technologies for Political Control (January 6, 1998) (http://cryptome.org/stoa-atpc.htm).
10. Letter from Martin Brady, Director, Defence Signals
Directorate, to Ross Coulhart, Reporter, Nine Network Australia 2 (Mar.
16, 1999) (on file with the author); see also Calls for inquiry into
spy bases, ONE NEWS New Zealand (Dec. 28, 1999).
11. Duncan Campbell, Somebody's listening, NEW
STATESMAN, 12 August 1988, Cover, pages 10-12. See Duncan Campbell,
ECHELON: NSA's Global Electronic Interception, (last visited
October 12, 1999) (http://jya.com/echelon-dc.htm).
12. PE 166.499, supra note 9, at 19-20.
13. PE 168.184 / Part 4/4, supra note 1.
14. David Ruppe, Snooping on Friends?, ABCNews.com
(U.S.) (Feb. 25, 2000) (http://abcnews.go.com/sections/world/dailynews/echelon000224.html).
15. R. James Woolsey, Why We Spy on Our Allies,
WALL ST. J., March 17, 2000. See also CRYPTOME, Ex-CIA Head: Why
We Spy on Our Allies (last visited April 11, 2000) (http://cryptome.org/echelon-cia2.htm).
16. Letter from Duncan Campbell to the Wall Street Journal
(March 20, 2000) (on file with the author). See also Kevin Poulsen,
Echelon Reporter answers Ex-CIA Chief, SecurityFocus.com (March
23, 2000) (http://www.securityfocus.com/news/6).
17. Duncan Campbell, Flaw in Human Rights Uncovered,
HEISE TELEPOLIS, April 8, 2000. See also HEISE ONLINE, Flaw in
Human Rights Uncovered (April 8, 2000) (http://www.heise.de/tp/english/inhalt/co/6724/1.html).
18. Nicholas Rufford, Spy Station F83, SUNDAY
TIMES (London), May 31, 1998. See Nicholas Rufford, Spy Station F83
(May 31, 1998) (http://www.sunday-times.co.uk/news/pages/sti/98/05/31/stifocnws01003.html?999).
19. H. Rep. No. 106-130 (1999). See Intelligence
Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000, Additional Views of Chairman
Porter J. Goss, (last visited August 24, 1999) (http://www.echelonwatch.org/goss.htm).
20. Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000,
Pub. L. 106-120, Section 309, 113 Stat. 1605, 1613 (1999). See H.R.
1555 Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000 (Enrolled Bill
(Sent to President)), (last visited Dec. 17, 1999) (http://www.echelonwatch.org/hr1555c.htm).
21. UNITED STATES NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY, LEGAL STANDARDS
FOR THE INTELLIGENCE COMMUNITY IN CONDUCTING ELECTRONIC SURVEILLANCE
(2000). See also Federation of American Scientists, Legal Standards
for the Intelligence Community in Conducting Electronic Surveillance
(last visited April 11, 2000) (http://www.fas.org/irp/nsa/standards.html).
22. House Committee to Hold Privacy Hearings,
(August 16, 1999) (http://www.house.gov/barr/p_081699.html).
23. ELECTRONIC PRIVACY INFORMATION CENTER, PRESS RELEASE:
LAWSUIT SEEKS MEMOS ON SURVEILLANCE OF AMERICANS; EPIC LAUNCHES STUDY
OF NSA INTERCEPTION ACTIVITIES (1999). See also Electronic Privacy Information
Center, EPIC Sues for NSA Surveillance Memos (last visited December
17, 1999) (http://www.epic.org/open_gov/foia/nsa_suit_12_99.html).
24. Ross Coulhart, Echelon System: FAQs and website
links, (May 23, 1999).
25. PE 168.184 / Part 4/4, supra note 1, Ch.
5, para. 101-103.
26. PE 166.499, supra note 9, at 20.
28. PE 168.184 / Part 4/4, supra note 1, Ch.
5, para. 101-102.
29. Vernon Loeb, NSA Admits to Spying on Princess
Diana, WASHINGTON POST, December 12, 1998, at A13. See Vernon Loeb,
NSA Admits to Spying on Princess Diana, WASHINGTON POST, A13
(December 12, 1998) (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/daily/dec98/diana12.htm).
30. Ross Coulhart, Big Brother is listening,
(May 23, 1999).
31. PE 168.184 / Part 4/4, supra note 1, Ch.
1, para. 7.