Echelon Eavesdrops Around the World Without Warrant or Court Order (Salt Lake Tribune; 05/08/99)
You may not have heard of Echelon, but if you've called over to Europe lately, it has probably overheard you. Echelon is a global communications surveillance system that allows our government to listen in on international phone calls and intercept e-mail and faxes, all without a warrant or court order.
In addition to spying on criminal and espionage activities, Echelon also has been known to eavesdrop on Princess Diana and Amnesty International. And stealing proprietary secrets from European corporations is one of its stocks in trade. This may all sound like a bad movie by Albert Broccoli -- American spy agency run amok -- but the nightmare scenario is true.
According to two recent reports made to the European Parliament, Echelon tries to intercept all international cellular, fiber-optic, microwave and satellite traffic from around the world, including North America. The voice and data communications are then sent through a filtering system that is programmed to look for certain code words and phrases, like names of individuals and organizations.
The filters also search for particular people using voice recognition technology. Anything flagged by the filters is then sent to the intelligence agency that requested it. Echelon is a joint operation between the U.S. National Security Agency and the intelligence agencies of England, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
If the reports about the extent of spying are accurate, then American overseas conversations and data transmissions are being intercepted without any form of judicial or legislative oversight. With Echelon, the NSA may have the largest domestic surveillance system of any spy agency in the United States, including the FBI, yet it's subject to none of the legal constraints.
So far, Echelon has been operating under the radar screen of the American public. Internationally, though, government watchdogs and the media have been on to it for years.
As early as the 1970s, British researchers uncovered information on a burgeoning international surveillance network. They discovered this by simply connecting the dots -- visually connecting the posted microwave towers in the United Kingdom, which were situated on hilltops always in line of sight to each other. After mapping this transmission path, they were arrested and charged with violating Britain's Official Secrets Act.
In 1996, Echelon was further revealed in a book by New Zealand author Nicky Hager. Secret Power exposed the massive reach of Echelon and the fact that, as opposed to Cold War spy networks, it was designed to eavesdrop primarily on non- military targets: businesses, political organizations, governments and individuals. Echelon is particularly disturbing to nations that are competing economically with its members.
This month, in the Electronic Telegraph International News, Tony Paterson reported from Berlin that the United States is using Echelon to conduct industrial espionage against German businesses. A former NSA employee who refused to be identified appeared on German television last year and disclosed that the American government has spied on the German energy company Enercon.
Satellite information was used to monitor phone and computer transmissions between the company's research facility and its production plant. Information on Enercon's secret invention, which turned wind power into electricity much more efficiently, was then turned over to an American firm, according to the NSA source. When Enercon attempted to market its product in this country, it found the American company had already obtained a patent on the idea and sought a court order to ban the sale of Enercon's products.
"Washington has instructed its security services to collect
information for the benefit of American industry," wrote Paterson.
And according to Hager, Echelon has been used to give negotiators an edge in trade talks. For example, he reported that there was stepped-up monitoring of all nations participating in GATT, or General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, negotiations.
But it's not just governments and businesses that have to worry. Apparently, international charities and human rights groups have been targets of Echelon's big ears. A British intelligence operative told London's Observer that both Amnesty International and Christian Aid have been spied on. Before her death, the NSA had been collecting the personal conversations of Princess Diana. An intelligence expert suggested it was possibly because our government didn't like her activism in support of a treaty to ban land mines.
Because Echelon is steeped in secrecy, the NSA refuses to even acknowledge its existence. But if the NSA isn't willing to be accountable to the media, it should be accountable to Congress. Both the American Civil Liberties Union and U.S. Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., have called for congressional hearings into Echelon and whether it is violating federal foreign surveillance statutes and the Constitution.
At a recent conference on computers, freedom and privacy, Barr called on Congress to "exercise aggressive oversight of government transmission, retrieval, storage and manipulation of private personal information.
"We must demand the government account for its surveillance
activities, including Project Echelon, and take steps to ensure the privacy of electronic communications," he said.
It is not hard to envision the Echelon system being used to infiltrate political advocacy organizations both here and abroad in the style of J. Edgar Hoover. Without congressional and judicial oversight, the NSA and the executive branch can use this ubiquitous spy machine to whatever mischievous and unconstitutional means they wish. Which is what they appear to be doing now.