Echelon: Sigint under the spotlight

Echelon: Sigint under the spotlight

Summary: ZDNet reveals the proof that Echelon does exist

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TOPICS: Security
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During the 1970s, after the Watergate revelations toppled US president Richard Nixon, special committees set up by the US Congress documented numerous abuses by US intelligence agencies, including NSA. These investigations resulted in the reform of US intelligence and the institution of new oversight systems. But even these investigations did not uncover -- or even lead to the suspicion -- that a secret new satellite spying network had begun operations years earlier.

Echelon was first revealed in 1988. But it drew little attention until a 1997 European Parliament report highlighted new revelations about Echelon in a book published in New Zealand the year before. Secret Power, by Nicky Hager, was based on six years of research into the New Zealand Sigint agency GCSB and its Echelon station at Waihopai, codenamed FLINTLOCK.

    Proof that Echelon exists:

  • Proof that the Echelon system was still operating was found in US government documents in 1998 and 1999. US intelligence specialist Dr Jeff Richelson, of the National Security Archive, Washington DC, used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain a series of modern, official US Navy and Air Force documents which confirmed the continued existence, scale and expansion of the Echelon system. The documents identified five sites as part of the system collecting information from communications satellites.

    The first station to be confirmed as part of Echelon was Sugar Grove, in West Virginia. According to the station's history, an "Echelon training department" was established in 1990. When training was complete, the first task assigned to the station was "to maintain and operate an Echelon site".

    NSA Official Web Site

    According to these official documents, Sugar Grove's mission is "to direct satellite communications equipment [in support of] consumers of Comsat information ... this is achieved by providing a trained cadre of collection system operators, analysts and managers...".

    In 1990, satellite photography showed that there were four antennae at Sugar Grove field station. In 1998, a ground visit by a TV crew revealed that this had expanded to nine. All were directed towards the satellites over the Atlantic Ocean, providing communications to and from the Americas as well as Europe and Africa.

    Sugar Grove station

    The documents also identify four other intelligence bases that were part of the Echelon network by 1995. These were Yakima , Sabana Seca in Puerto Rico, Guam, and Misawa, Japan.

Since then, Echelon has come under the international spotlight. In 1999, the European Parliament published a second report, Interception Capabilities 2000.

In April 2000, the US Congress held an initial debate. But the US committees have become more concerned about efficiency than risks to privacy or human rights. The European Parliament has continued to debate the issue. European Members of Parliament have argued that new cross-border tapping systems to deal with serious crime or terrorism mean that totally secret systems like Echelon are anachronistic. They say that future plans for monitoring communications should "have a legal basis, be in the public interest and be strictly limited to the achievement of the intended objective".

    Spying on businesses and charities:

    Information from the Echelon network and other parts of the global surveillance system is used by the US and its allies for diplomatic, military and commercial purposes. Under a 1993 policy known as "levelling the playing field", the United States government under President Clinton established new trade and economic committees and told the CIA and other intelligence agencies to act in support of US businesses in seeking contracts abroad. In the UK, GCHQ's legal powers openly identify one of its purposes as to promote "the economic well-being of the United Kingdom in relation to the actions or intentions of persons outside the British Islands".

    Britain's GCHQ has also spied on third world charities and campaign groups such as Amnesty International and Greenpeace, according to former UK intelligence staff. In 1999, a Danish newspaper uncovered material from US Echelon units suggesting that they were targeting the computer hackers and the international Red Cross, as well as international terrorists and the leaders of Libya and Serbia. These targets were described as "a lot of new fish, in a lot of unfamiliar ponds".

After years of development, keyword spotting in the vast volumes of intercepted daily written communications -- telex, email, and data -- is a routine task. But "word spotting" in spoken communications is not an effective tool -- although individual speaker recognition techniques have been in use throughout most of the 1990s. New methods developed by NSA may become available to recognise the "topics" of phone calls, and thus allow the Sigint agencies to automate the processing of the content of telephone calls -- a goal that has eluded them for 30 years.

New developments in NSA Sigint and information warfare will include information-stealing viruses, software audio, video and data bugs, and pre-emptive tampering with software or hardware ("trapdoors").

But inside the secret world of signals intelligence, the NSA's products look increasingly like using the public Internet. Authorised users with appropriate permissions to access so-called "Special Compartmented Intelligence" use standard web browsers to look at the output of NSA's Operations Department from across the world. This intranet system, known as Intelink, is run from the NSA's Fort Meade HQ. Completed in 1996, Intelink connects 13 different US intelligence agencies and some allied agencies with the aim of providing instant access to all types of intelligence information.

Just like logging onto the World Wide Web, spooks and and military personnel can view a home page atlas, and then click on the country they choose in order to access its secrets.

Go to ZDNet's Echelon Special

Rupert Goodwins reckons we've allowed a state surveillance system to be built that would be the envy of any dictator, and we've allowed it to flourish unseen and uncontrolled. What we must do now is to start building pressure for a wholesale reform of Echelon: not to shut it down and render ourselves deaf to real threats but to improve its efficiency and make it ours again, not the plaything of nameless people. Go to AnchorDesk UK for the news comment.

The British are keeping a stiff upper lip, the US simply avoid mentioning it and the French believe it has been stealing secrets from France for years. Go to the TalkBack forum to tell us what you know and think about Echelon.

Topic: Security

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