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IP: Europe's Echelon eavesdropping exposed
From: [email protected]
Subject: IP: Europe's Echelon eavesdropping exposed
Date: Thu, 01 Oct 1998 10:18:09 -0500
To: [email protected]
Eavesdropping on Europe
by Niall McKay
If the European Parliament has its way, the lid is
about to come off what is reputedly one of the
most powerful, secretive, and extensive spy
networks in history -- if, in fact, it really exists.
In October, Europe's governing body will
commission a full report into the workings of
Echelon, a global network of highly sensitive
listening posts operated in part by America's
most clandestine intelligence organization, the
National Security Agency.
"Frankly, the only people who have any doubt
about the existence of Echelon are in the United
States," said Glyn Ford, a British member of the
European Parliament and a director of Scientific
and Technical Options Assessment, or STOA, a
technology advisory committee to the
Echelon is reportedly able to intercept, record,
and translate any electronic communication --
telephone, data, cellular, fax, email, telex -- sent
anywhere in the world. The parliamentary report
will focus on concerns that the system has
expanded and is now zeroed in on the secrets of
European companies and elected officials.
The parliament is alarmed at reports of
Echelon's impressive capabilities, and during a
debate on 19 September, the European Union
called for accountability. The parliament
stressed that the NSA and the Government
Communications Headquarters, which jointly
operate Echelon, must adopt measures to guard
against the system's abuse.
International cooperation on law enforcement is
important, Ford said, but there are limits. "We
want to establish a code of conduct for the
systems to protect EU citizens and
Across the Atlantic, Patrick Poole, deputy
director for the Free Congress Foundation, a
conservative Washington think tank, is preparing
a report on Echelon to present to Republican
members of Congress. "I believe it's time we
start to bring this matter to our elected officials,"
Poole and Ford have their work cut out for them:
Neither Britain nor the United States will admit
that Echelon even exists. The NSA declined any
comment on a series of faxed questions for this
Over the years, enough information has leaked
to suggest that the spy network is more than
science fiction. Echelon came to the attention of
the EU Parliament following a report
commissioned by STOA last year.
"Unlike many of the electronic spy systems
developed during the Cold War, Echelon is
designed for primarily non-military targets:
governments, organizations, and businesses in
virtually every country," the report said.
According to the STOA report and stories in The
New York Times, The Daily Telegraph, and The
Guardian, Echelon consists of a network of
listening posts, antenna fields, and radar
stations. The system is backed by computers
that use language translation, speech
recognition, and keyword searching to
automatically sift through telephone, email, fax,
and telex traffic.
The system is principally operated by the NSA
and the GCHQ, but reportedly also relies on
cooperation with "signals intelligence"
operations in other countries, including the
Communications Security Establishment of
Canada, Australia's Defense Signals Directorate,
and New Zealand's Government
Communications Security Bureau.
John Pike, a security analyst for the Federation
of American Scientists, said each of the five
government agencies takes responsibility for its
own geographical region.
Each agency reportedly maintains a glossary of
keywords. If Echelon intercepts a transmission
containing a word or phrase contained in the
glossary -- bomb, for example -- the full
conversation, email, or fax is recorded and
shared among the agencies.
"Echelon intercepts Internet traffic at the
transport layer, such as the TCP/IP layer, so the
system doesn't care too much what it is or
where it came from," said Pike. "For analog
traffic, such as telephone conversations, it uses
automatic voice-recognition technology to scan
Abuses of Power?
While the EU is aware that Echelon may be a
useful tool for tracking down global terrorists,
drug barons, and international criminals, Ford
said the parliament is concerned that the
system may also be used for espionage, spying
on peaceful nations, or gaining unfair economic
advantage over non-member nations.
Indeed, there are many reported instances of the
British and US intelligence agencies working
together to gather information in a questionable
A 1993 BBC documentary about NSA's Menwith
Hill facility in England revealed that peace
protestors had broken into the installation and
stolen part of this glossary, known as "the
Dictionary." The documentary alleged that
Menwith Hill -- a sprawling installation covering
560 acres and employing more than 1,200
people -- was Echelon's nerve center.
Further evidence emerged last year, when
British Telecom told a court that it provides
high-bandwidth telecommunications into the
Menwith Hill facility and from the facility to the
United States, using a transatlantic fiber-optic
"I believe that these five intelligence agencies
are working from a single plan," said Pike.
British investigative journalist Duncan Campbell
was the first to report about Echelon in a 1988
article in The New Statesman. He believes that
there is a very thin line between intelligence
gathering and commercial espionage.
Pike, of the Federation of American Scientists,
believes the intelligence agencies operate in a
gray area of international law. For example,
there is no law prohibiting the NSA from
intercepting telecommunications and data traffic
in the United Kingdom and no law prohibiting
GCHQ from doing the same thing in the United
"The view by the NSA seems to be anything that
can be intercepted is fair game," said Pike. "And
it's very hard to find out what, if any, restraints
can be employed."
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