Eavesdropping on Europe
01 Oct 98 12:51:37 +1100
An interesting story on Wired...
Eavesdropping on Europe by Niall McKay
4:00 a.m. 30.Sep.98.PDT 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 parliament.
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 governments."
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," he said.
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 story.
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
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 the conversations."
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
Indeed, there are many reported instances of the British and US intelligence
agencies working together to gather information in a questionable manner.
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
"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 States.
"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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