Echelon (signals intelligence)
ECHELON is a name used in global media and in popular culture to describe a signals intelligence (SIGINT) collection and analysis network operated on behalf of the five signatory states to the UK–USA Security Agreement (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States, known as AUSCANNZUKUS or Five Eyes). It has also been described as the only software system which controls the download and dissemination of the intercept of commercial satellite trunk communications.
ECHELON was reportedly created to monitor the military and diplomatic communications of the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc allies during the Cold War in the early 1960s. Since the end of the Cold War it is believed to search also for hints of terrorist plots, drug dealers‘ plans, and political and diplomatic intelligence.
The system has been reported in a number of public sources. Its capabilities and political implications were investigated by a committee of the European Parliament during 2000 and 2001 with a report published in 2001, and by author James Bamford in his books on the National Security Agency of the United States.
In a report published in 2001, the European Parliament stated that the term ECHELON is used in a number of contexts, but that the evidence presented indicates that it was the name for a signals intelligence collection system. The report concludes that, on the basis of information presented, ECHELON was capable of interception and content inspection of telephone calls, fax, e-mail and other data traffic globally through the interception of communication bearers including satellite transmission, public switched telephone networks (which once carried most Internet traffic) and microwave links.
Bamford describes the system as the software controlling the collection and distribution of civilian telecommunications traffic conveyed using communication satellites, with the collection being undertaken by ground stations located in the footprint of the downlink leg.
Intelligence monitoring of people in the area covered by the AUSCANNZUKUS security agreement has caused concern. Some critics claim the system is being used not only to search for terrorist plots, drug dealers’ plans, and political and diplomatic intelligence but also for large-scale commercial theft, international economic espionage and invasion of privacy. British journalist Duncan Campbell and New Zealand journalist Nicky Hager asserted in the 1990s that the United States was exploiting ECHELON traffic for industrial espionage, rather than military and diplomatic purposes. Examples alleged by the journalists include the gear-less wind turbine technology designed by the German firm Enerconand the speech technology developed by the Belgian firm Lernout & Hauspie. An article in the US newspaper Baltimore Sun reported in 1995 that European aerospace company Airbus lost a $6 billion contract with Saudi Arabia in 1994 after the US National Security Agency reported that Airbus officials had been bribing Saudi officials to secure the contract.
In 2001 the Temporary Committee on the ECHELON Interception System recommended to the European Parliament that citizens of member states routinely use cryptography in their communications to protect their privacy, because economic espionage with ECHELON has been conducted by the US intelligence.
Bamford provides an alternate view, highlighting that legislation prohibits the use of intercepted communications for commercial purposes, although does not elaborate on how intercepted communications are used as part of an all-source intelligence process.
Read the EU committee report on this worldwide monitoring of all forms of communication here:
- ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Schmid, Gerhard (2001-07-11). “On the existence of a global system for the interception of private and commercial communications (ECHELON interception system), (2001/2098(INI))” (pdf – 194 pages). European Parliament: Temporary Committee on the ECHELON Interception System. Retrieved 2008-03-27.