ECHELON Surveillance System

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That governments and their agencies are mistrusted is hardly news in 2012. The gradual exposure of their practices and policies fostered in part by the rise of the internet has shorn away much of the prestige and secrecy which arose from the needs of military intelligence. But there are still sinister operations underway, regardless of public knowledge and opinion - particularly as the battlegrounds of the 21st century are often between citizens and governments rather than between state actors.

ECHELON is the name popularly given to the US signals intelligence system - but one not officially recognised by the defence community. It is widely alleged that this network has the capability to intercept any and all forms of electronic communication from phone calls, texts, internet communications and emails.

The system is said to operate based on the use of 'keywords'. If a communication is scanned and found to include one of these keywords, it is then checked for further detail and possible threat content, or forwarded on to interested countries or agencies.

According to an influential report prepared for the European Parliament by the Omega Research Foundation in 1998:

"Within Europe, all email, telephone and fax communications are routinely intercepted by the United States National Security Agency, transferring all target information from the European mainland via the strategic hub of London then by Satellite to Fort Meade in Maryland via the crucial hub at Menwith Hill in the North York Moors of the UK"

The full and final report by the European Parliament lists several instances where US technological ability was used in cases of industrial espionage - in some cases to uncover malfeasance on the parts of others, but in some cases to give direct competitive advantage to US firms in tender processes.

"Information on an order for aircraft concluded between Airbus and the Saudi Arabian national airline... Interception of faxes and telephone calls between the negotiating parties Forwarding of information to Airbus's US competitors, Boeing and McDonnell-Douglas The Americans won the contract (US$ 6 bn)"

The UK's role in ECHELON is as part of a five-way agreement between itself, the USA, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. By far the most important part of US signal intelligence's operations in Europe is RAF Menwith Hill in Yorkshire.

The EU report also found that:

"Analysis has revealed that the technical capabilities of the system are probably not nearly as extensive as some sections of the media had assumed
Analysis has revealed that the technical capabilities of the system are probably not nearly as extensive as some sections of the media had assumed"

They noted whereas the system was primarily intended for intercepting satellite communications, only a small proportion of communications actually take place via satellite and that serious large scale surveillance of civilian communications traffic would have to rely on wiretapping and radio intercepts.

Given the incredible amount of data flowing through world's communications channels, and the amount of resources needed to parse that information in useful ways, the report downplayed some of the common fears expressed - that the system is capable of and routinely used for listening to all communications at all times.

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Author: Ian Freud   |  Last updated: 19th September 2014 | © Weird Island 2010-2020
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