by Duncan Campbell
25 July 2000
Since 1998, much has been written and
spoken about the so-called Echelon system of international
communications surveillance. Most of what has been written has been
denied or ignored by US and European authorities.
But much of what
has been written has also been exaggerated or wrong. Amongst a sea
of denials, obfuscations and errors, confusion has reigned. This
review by Duncan Campbell, author of the European Parliament’s 1999
"Interception Capabilities 2000" report
1 , is intended to help clear
up the confusion, to say what Echelon is (and isn’t), where it came
from and what it does. Echelon, or systems like it, will be with us
a long time to come.
Echelon is a system used by the United States National Security
Agency (NSA) to intercept and process international communications
passing via communications satellites. It is one part of a global
surveillance systems that is now over 50 years old. Other parts of
the same system intercept messages from the Internet, from undersea
cables, from radio transmissions, from secret equipment installed
inside embassies, or use orbiting satellites to monitor signals
anywhere on the earth’s surface.
The system includes stations run by Britain, Canada, Australia and
New Zealand, in addition to those
operated by the United States. Although some Australian and British
stations do the same job as America’s Echelon sites, they are not
necessarily called "Echelon" stations. But they all form part of the
same integrated global network using the same equipment and methods
to extract information and intelligence illicitly from millions of
messages every day, all over the world.
The first reports about Echelon in Europe
2 credited it with the
capacity to intercept "within Europe, all e-mail, telephone, and fax
communications". This has proven to be erroneous; neither
nor the signals intelligence ("sigint") system of which it is part
can do this. Nor is equipment available with the capacity to process
and recognize the content of every speech message or telephone call.
But the American and British-run network can, with sister stations,
access and process most of the worlds satellite communications,
automatically analyzing and relaying it to customers who may be
The world’s most secret electronic surveillance system has its main
origin in the conflicts of the Second World War. In a deeper sense,
it results from the invention of radio and the fundamental nature of
The creation of radio permitted governments and
other communicators to pass messages to receivers over
transcontinental distances. But there was a penalty - anyone else
could listen in. Previously, written messages were physically secure
(unless the courier carrying them was ambushed, or a spy compromised
The invention of radio thus created a new
importance for cryptography, the art and science of making secret
codes. It also led to the business of signals intelligence, now an
industrial scale activity. Although the largest surveillance network
is run by the US NSA, it is far from alone. Russia,
and other nations operate worldwide networks.
Dozens of advanced
nations use sigint as a key source of intelligence. Even smaller
European nations such as Denmark, the Netherlands or
have recently constructed small, Echelon-like stations to obtain and
process intelligence by eavesdropping on civil satellite
During the 20th century, governments realized the importance of
effective secret codes. But they were often far from successful.
During the Second World War, huge allied code-breaking establishments
in Britain and America analyzed and read hundreds of thousands of
German and Japanese signals. What they did and how they did it
remained a closely-guarded secret for decades afterwards. In the
intervening period, the US and British sigint agencies, NSA and
Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) constructed their
worldwide listening network.
The system was established under a secret 1947 "UKUSA Agreement,"
which brought together the British and American systems, personnel
and stations. To this was soon joined the networks of three British
commonwealth countries, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Later,
other countries including Norway, Denmark, Germany and Turkey signed
secret sigint agreements with the United States and became "third
parties" participants in the UKUSA network.
Besides integrating their stations, each country appoints senior
officials to work as liaison staff at the others’ headquarters. The
United States operates a Special US Liaison Office (SUSLO) in
and Cheltenham, while a SUKLO official from
GCHQ has his own suite
of offices inside NSA headquarters at Fort Meade, between Washington
Under the UKUSA agreement, the five main English-speaking countries
took responsibility for overseeing surveillance in different parts
of the globe 3 . Britain’s zone included Africa and Europe, east to
the Ural Mountains of the former USSR; Canada covered northern
latitudes and polar regions; Australia covered Oceania. The
agreement prescribed common procedures, targets, equipment and
methods that the sigint agencies would use.
Among them were
international regulations for sigint security
4 , which required that
before anyone was admitted to knowledge of the arrangements for
obtaining and handling sigint, they must first undertake a lifelong
commitment to secrecy. Every individual joining a UKUSA sigint
organization must be "indoctrinated" and, often "re-indoctrinated"
each time they are admitted to knowledge of a specific project. They
are told only what they "need to know", and that the need for total
secrecy about their work "never ceases".
Everything produced in the sigint organizations is marked by
hundreds of special code-words that "compartmentalize" knowledge of
intercepted communications and the systems used to intercept them.
The basic level, which is effectively a higher classification than
"Top Secret" is "Top Secret Umbra". More highly classified documents
are identified as "Umbra Gamma"; other code-words can be added to
restrict circulation still further. Less sensitive information, such
as analyses of telecommunications traffic, may be classified "Secret
The scale and significance of the global surveillance system has
been transformed since 1980. The arrival of low cost wideband
international communications has created a wired world.
people are aware that the first global wide area network (WAN) was
not the internet, but the international network connecting sigint
stations and processing centers. The network is connected over
transoceanic cables and space links. Most of the capacity of the
American and British military communications satellites, Milstar and
Skynet, is devoted to relaying intelligence information. It was not
until the mid 1990s that the public internet became larger than the
secret internet that connects surveillance stations.
Britain’s sigint agency GCHQ now openly boasts on its web site [http://www.gchq.gov.uk]
that it helps operate "one of the largest WANs [Wide Area Networks}
in the world" and that "all GCHQ systems are linked together on the
largest LAN in Europe ... connected to other sites around the
world". The same pages also claim that "the immense size and sheer
power of GCHQ’s supercomputing architecture is difficult to
The UKUSA alliance’s wide area network is engineered according to
the same principles as the internet 5 , and provides access from all
field interception stations to and from NSA’s central computer
system, known as Platform. Other parts of the system are known as
Embroidery, Tideway and Oceanfront. The intelligence news network is
A TV conference system, highly encrypted like every
other part of the network, is called Gigster. They are supported by
applications known as Preppy and Droopy. NSA’s e-mail system looks
and feels like everybody else’s e-mail, but is completely separate
from the public network. Messages addressed to its secret internal
internet address, which is simply "nsa", will not get through.
The delivery of NSA intelligence also now looks and feels like using
the internet. Authorized users with appropriate permissions to
access "Special Compartmented Intelligence" 6
use standard web
browsers to look at the output of NSA’s Operations Department from
The system, known as "Intelink", is run from the
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, intelligence analysts and
military personnel can view an atlas on Intelink’s home page, and
then click on any country they choose in order to access
intelligence reports, video clips, satellite photos, databases and
In the early post war years, and for the next quarter century, there
was little sign of this automation or sophistication. In those
years, most of the world’s long distance communications - civil,
military or diplomatic - passed by high frequency radio. NSA and its
collaborators operated hundreds of remote interception sites, both
surrounding the Soviet Union and China and scattered around the
world. Inside windowless buildings, teams of intercept operators
passed long shifts listening into silence, interspersed with sudden
periods of frenetic activity.
For the listening bases on the front
line of the cold war, monitoring military radio messages during the
cold war brought considerable stress. Operators at such bases often
recall colleagues breaking down under the tension, perhaps fleeing
into closets after believing that they had just intercepted a
message marking the beginning of global thermonuclear war.
The Second World War left Britain’s agency GCHQ with an extensive
network of sigint outposts. Many were fixed in Britain, while others
were scattered around the then Empire.
From stations including
Bermuda, Ascension, Cyprus, Gibraltar, Iraq, Singapore, and Hong
Kong, radio operators tracked Soviet and, soon, Chinese political
and military developments. These stations complemented a US network
which by 1960 included thousands of continuously operated
interception positions. The other members of the UKUSA alliance,
Australia, Canada and New Zealand contributed stations in the South
Pacific and arctic regions.
After the signing of the UKUSA pact, a new chain of stations began
operating along the boundaries of the western sphere of influence,
monitoring the signals of Soviet ground and air forces. British sigint outposts were established in Germany and, secretly in Austria
and Iran. US listening posts were set up in central and southern
Germany and later in Turkey, Italy and Spain.
One major US sigint
base - Kagnew Station at Asmara in Eritrea - was taken over from the
British in 1941 and grew to become, until its closure in 1970, one
of the largest intercept stations in the world. One of its more
spectacular features was a tracking dish used to pass messages to
the United States by reflecting them off the surface of the moon.
By the mid 1960s, many of these bases featured gigantic antenna
systems that could monitor every HF (High Frequency) radio message,
from all angles, while simultaneously obtaining bearings that could
enable the position of a transmitter to be located. Both the US Navy
and the US Air Force employed global networks of this kind. The US
Air Force installed 500 meter wide arrays known as FLR-9 at sites
including Chicksands, England, San Vito dei Normanni in
Italy, Karamursel in Turkey, the Philippines, and at
Codenamed "Iron Horse", the first FLR-9 stations came into operation
The US Navy established similar bases in the US and at
Rota, Spain, Bremerhaven, Germany, Edzell, Scotland,
Guam, and later
in Puerto Rico, targeted on Cuba.
When the United States went to war in
Vietnam, Australian and New Zealand operators in Singapore,
Australia and elsewhere worked directly in support of the war.
Britain; as a neutral country was not supposed to be involved. In
practice, however British operators at the GCHQ intercept station no
UKC201 at Little Sai Wan, Hong Kong monitored and reported on the
North Vietnamese air defense networks while US B52 bombers attacked
Hanoi and other North Vietnamese targets.
Since the end of the cold war, the history of some cold war signals
intelligence operations have been declassified. At the US National Cryptologic Museum, run by
NSA at its headquarters, the agency now
openly acknowledges many of its cold war listening operations. It
also describes the controversial use of ships and aircraft to
penetrate or provoke military defenses in operations that cost the
lives of more than 100 of its staff. But another longstanding aspect
of sigint operations remain unacknowledged. During the second world
war as well as in the cold war and since, British and US
intelligence agencies monitored the signals and broke the codes of
allies and friends, as well as of civilians and commercial
communications around the world. The diplomatic communications of
every country were and are attacked.
The stations and methods were the same as for military targets.
Within the intelligence agencies, the civilian target was known as "ILC".
ILC stood for "International Leased Carrier", and referred to the
private companies or telecommunications administrations operating or
administrating long range undersea cables or radio stations. Some ILC circuits were rented to governments or large companies as
permanent links. The majority were used for public telegraph, telex
or telephone services.
Many details of the operation of the English-speaking sigint axis
were revealed by two NSA defectors at a press conference held in
Moscow on 6 September 1960. There, two NSA analysts,
and William Martin, told the world what NSA was doing:
We know from working at NSA [that] the United States reads the secret
communications of more than forty nations, including its
own allies ... NSA keeps in operation more
than 2000 manual intercept positions ... Both enciphered
and plain text communications are monitored from almost
every nation in the world, including the nations on
whose soil the intercept bases are located.
New York Times
7 September 1960.
The revelations were reported in full in the US, but their impact
was soon buried by security recriminations and accusations. Martin
and Mitchell revealed that NSA’s operations division included two
key groups. One group covered the Soviet Union and its allies. The
second analysis division was known as ALLO, standing for "all other
[countries]". This part of NSA’s production
organization was later
renamed ROW, starting for "Rest of the World".
Thus, in 1965, while intercept operators at the NSA’s
station in England focused on the radio messages of Warsaw Pact air
forces, their colleagues 200 kilometers north at Kirknewton,
Scotland were covering "ILC" traffic, including commercially run
radio links between major European cities. These networks could
carry anything from birthday telegrams to detailed economic or
commercial information exchanged by companies, to encrypted
diplomatic messages. In the intercept rooms, machines tuned to
transmission channels continuously spewed out 8-ply paper to be read
and marked up by intelligence analysts.
Around the world, thousands
of analysts worked on these mostly unencrypted communications using NSA ’watch lists’ - weekly key word lists of people, companies,
commodities of interest for the NSA watchers to single out from
’clear’ traffic. Coded messages were passed on immediately. Among
the regular names on the watch lists were the leaders of African
guerrilla movements who were later to become their countries’
leaders. In time, many prominent Americans were added to the list.
The international communications of the actress Jane Fonda,
Benjamin Spock and hundreds of others were put under surveillance
because of their opposition to the war in Vietnam. Back power leader
Eldridge Cleaver and his colleagues were included because of their
civil rights activities in the US.
A short distance to the north at Cupar, Scotland, another intercept
station was operated by the British Post Office, and masqueraded as
a long distance radio station. In fact, it was another GCHQ
interception site, which collected European countries’
communications, instead of sending them.
In time, these operations were integrated. In 1976, NSA set up a
special new civilian unit at its Chicksands base to carry out
diplomatic and civilian interception. The unit, called "DODJOCC"
(Department of Defense Joint Operations Centre Chicksands) was
targeted on non-US Diplomatic Communications, known as NDC. One
specific target, known as FRD, stood for French diplomatic traffic.
Italian diplomatic signals, known similarly as ITD, were collected
and broken by NSA’s counterpart agency GCHQ, at its Cheltenham
Entering Chicksands’ Building 600 through double security fences and
a turnstile where green and purple clearance badges were checked,
the visitor would first encounter a sigint in-joke - a copy of the
International Telecommunications Convention pasted up on the wall.
Article 22 of the Convention, which both the United Kingdom and the
United States have ratified, promises that member states,
take all possible measures, compatible with the system of
telecommunication used, with a view to ensuring the secrecy of
Besides intercepting ILC communications at radio stations,
and their counterparts also collected printed copies of all
international telegrams from public and commercial operators in
London, New York and other centres. They were then taken to sigint
analysts and processed in the same way as foreign telegrams snatched
from the air at sites like Chicksands and Kirknewton. Britain had
done this since 1920, and the United States since 1945. The joint
programme was known as Operation Shamrock, and continued until it
was exposed by US Congressional intelligence investigations in the
wake of the Watergate affair.
On 8 August 1975, NSA Director Lt General Lew Allen admitted to the
Pike Committee of the US House of Representatives that :
systematically intercepts international communications, both voice
and cable" He also admitted that "messages to and from American
citizens have been picked up in the course of gathering foreign
At a later hearing, he described how NSA used "’watch
lists" an aid to watch for foreign activity of reportable
US legislators considered that these operations might have been
unconstitutional. During 1976, a Department of Justice team
investigated possible criminal offences by NSA. Part of their report
was released in 1980 It described how intelligence on US citizens,
known as MINARET "was obtained incidentally in the course of
interception of aural and non-aural (e.g, telex) international
communications and the receipt of GCHQ-acquired telex and
(International Leased Carrier) cable traffic (SHAMROCK)" (emphasis
As in the United Kingdom, from 1945 onwards NSA and its predecessors
had systematically obtained cable traffic from the offices of major
cable companies - RCA Global, ITT World Communications and
Union. Over time, the collection of copies of telegrams on paper was
replaced by the delivery of magnetic tapes and eventually by direct
connection of the monitoring centers to international communications
circuits. In Britain, all international telex links and telegram
circuits passing in, out or through the country were and are
connected to a GCHQ monitoring site in central London, known as
By the early 1970s, the laborious process of scanning paper
printouts for names or terms appearing on the "watch lists" had
begun to be replaced by automated computer systems. These computers
performed a task essentially similar to the search engines of the
internet. Prompted with a word, phrase or combination of words, they
will identify all messages containing the desired words or phrases.
Their job, now performed on a huge scale, is to match the "key
words" or phrases of interest to intelligence agencies to the huge
volume of international communications, to extract them and pass
them to where they are wanted. During the 1980s, the NSA developed a
"fast data finder" microprocessor that was optimally designed for
this purpose. It was later commercially marketed, with claims that
it "the most comprehensive character-string comparison functions of
any text retrieval system in the world".
A single unit could work
"trillions of bytes of textual
archive and thousands of online users, or gigabytes of live data
stream per day that are filtered against tens of thousands of
complex interest profiles" . 9
Although different systems are in use,
the key computer system at the heart of a modern sigint station’s
processing operations is the "Dictionary". Every
Echelon-like station contains a Dictionary. Portable versions are
even available, and can be loaded into briefcase-sized units known
as "Oratory" 10 . The
Dictionary computers scan communications input
to them, and extract for reporting and further analysis those that
match the profiles of interest. In one sense, the main function of
Dictionary computers are to throw most intercepted information away.
In a 1992 speech on information management, former NSA Director
William Studeman described the type of filtering involved in systems
like ECHELON : 11
"One [unidentified] intelligence
collection system alone can generate a million inputs per half
hour; filters throw away all but 6500 inputs; only 1,000 inputs
meet forwarding criteria; 10 inputs are normally selected by
analysts and only one report is produced. These are routine
statistics for a number of intelligence collection and analysis
systems which collect technical intelligence".
In other words, for every million
communications intercepted only one might result in action by an
intelligence agency. Only one in a thousand would ever be seen by
Supporting the operations of each Dictionary are gigantic
intelligence databases which contain tables of information related
to each target. At their simplest, these can be a list of telephone,
mobile phone, fax or pager numbers which associated with targets in
each group. They can include physical or e-mail addresses, names, or
any type of phrase or concept that can be formulated under normal
information retrieval rules.
Powerful though Dictionary methods and keyword search engines may
be, however, they and their giant associated intelligence databases
may soon be replaced by "topic analysis", a more powerful and
intuitive technique, and one that NSA is developing strongly. Topic
analysis enables Comint customers to ask their computers to "find me
documents about subject X". X might be "Shakespeare in love" or
"Arms to Iran".
In a standard US test used to evaluate topic analysis systems, one
task the analysis program is given is to find information about
"Airbus subsidies". The traditional approach involves supplying the
computer with the key terms, other relevant data, and synonyms. In
this example, the designations A-300 or A-320 might be synonymous
with "Airbus". The disadvantage of this approach is that it may find
irrelevant intelligence (for example, reports about export subsidies
to goods flown on an Airbus) and miss relevant material (for example
a financial analysis of a company in the consortium which does not
mention the Airbus product by name). Topic analysis overcomes this
and is better matched to human intelligence.
In 1991, a British television programme reported on the operations
of one Dictionary computer at GCHQ’s London station in Palmer
Street, Westminster (station UKC1000).
The programme quoted GCHQ
employees, who spoke off the record:
"Up on the fourth floor there, [GCHQ]
has hired a group of carefully vetted British Telecom people.
[Quoting the ex-GCHQ official:] It’s nothing to do with national
security. It’s because it’s not legal to take every single
telex. And they take everything: the embassies, all the business
deals, even the birthday greetings, they take everything. They
feed it into the Dictionary."
Among the targets of this station were
politicians, diplomats, businessmen, trades union leaders, non-government
organizations like Amnesty International, and even the
hierarchy of the Catholic church.
The Echelon system appears to have been in existence since the early
1970s, and to have gone through extensive evolution and development.
The need for efficient processing systems to replace the human
operators who performed watch list scans was first foreseen in the
late 1960s, when NSA and GCHQ were planning the first large
satellite interception sites. The first such station was built at
Morwenstow, Cornwall, and utilized two large dish antennae to
intercept communications crossing the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.
The second was built at Yakima, in the northwestern US state of
Washington. Yakima intercepted satellite communications over the
Also in the early 1970s, NSA and CIA discovered that
collection from space was far more effective and productive than had
been foreseen, resulting in vast accumulations of magnetic tapes
that quickly outstripped the available supply of Soviet linguists
and analysts. By the end of the 1970s, one of the main sites
processing communications intercepted from space was Menwith Hill,
in central England. A document prepared there in 1981
intelligence databases used at Menwith Hill as "Echelon 2". This
suggests that the Echelon network was already into its second
generation by 1981.
By the mid 1980s, communications handled by Dictionary computers
around the world were heavily sifted, with a wide variety of
specifications available for non-verbal traffic. Extensive further
automation was planned in the mid 1980s under two top secret NSA
Projects, P-377 and P-415. The implementation of these projects
completed the automation of the "watch list" activity of
decades. Computers replaced the analysts who compared reams of paper
intercepts to names and topics on the watch list. In the late 1980s,
staff from sigint agencies from countries including the UK, New
Zealand and China attended training courses on the
Project P-415 made heavy use of NSA and GCHQ’s global internet to
enable remote intelligence customers to task computers at each
collection site, and then receive the results automatically.
Selected incoming messages were compared to forwarding criteria held
on the Dictionary. If a match was found, the raw intelligence was
forwarded automatically to the designated recipients. According to
New Zealand author Nicky Hager, 13 Dictionary computers are tasked
with many thousands of different collection requirements, described
as "numbers" (four digit codes).
Details of project P-415 and the plans for the massive global
expansion of the Echelon system were revealed in 1988 by
"Peg" Newsham. Ms Newsham a former computer systems manager, worked
on classified projects for NSA contractors until the mid 1980s. From
August 1978 onwards, she worked at the NSA’s Menwith Hill Station
as a software coordinator. In this capacity, she helped managed a
number of Sigint computer databases, including "Echelon 2". She and
others also helped establish "Silkworth", a system for processing
information relayed from signals intelligence satellites called
Chalet, Vortex and Mercury. Her revelations led to the first ever
report about Echelon, published in 1988.
In Sunnyvale, California, Peg Newsham worked for Lockheed Space and
Missiles Corporation. In that capacity, she worked on plans for the
massive expansion of the Echelon network, a project identified
internally as P-415. During her employment by Lockheed, she also
become concerned about corruption, fraud and abuse within the
organizations planning and operating electronic surveillance
systems. She reported her concerns to the US Congress House
Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence early in 1988. She also
told them how she had witnessed the interception of a telephone call
made by a US Senator, Strom Thurmond, while working at Menwith Hill.
The full details of Echelon would probably never have come to
serious public attention but for 6 further years of research by New
Zealand writer Nicky Hager, who assiduously investigated the
Echelon station that started operating at Waihopai on the South
Island of New Zealand in 1989. His 1996 book Secret Power
15 is based
on extensive interviews with and help from members of the New
Zealand signals intelligence organization. It remains the best
informed and most detailed account of how Echelon works.
Early in 2000, information and documents leaked to a US researcher16
provided many details of how Echelon was developed for use
worldwide. Under a 1982 NSA plan assigned to Lockheed Space and
Missiles Systems, engineers and scientists worked on Project P-377 -
also known as CARBOY II. This project called for the development of
a standard kit of "ADPE" (automated data processing equipment) parts
for equipping Echelon sites. The "commonality of automated data
processing equipment (ADPE) in the Echelon system" included the
multiplex telegraphy processing subsystem
Time division multiplex
telegraphy processing subsystem
Voice collection module
[Voice] Tape Production
The CARBOY II project also called for
software systems to load and update the Dictionary databases. At
this time, the hardware for the Dictionary processing subsystem was
based on a cluster of DEC VAX mini-computers, together with special
purpose units for processing and separating different types of
In 1998 and 1999, the intelligence specialist Dr Jeff Richelson of
the National Security Archive 17 Washington, DC used the Freedom of
Information Act to obtain a series of modern official US Navy and
Air Force documents which have confirmed the continued existence,
scale and expansion of the Echelon system. The documents from the US
Air Force and US Navy identify Echelon units at four sites and
suggest that a fifth site also collects information from
communications satellites as part of the Echelon system.
One of the sites is Sugar Grove, West Virgina US, about 250 miles
south-west of Washington in a remote area of the Shenandoah
Mountains. It is operated by the US Naval Security Group and the US
Air Force Intelligence Agency. An upgraded sigint system called
Timberline II was installed at Sugar Grove in the summer of 1990. At
the same time, according to official US documents, an "Echelon
training department" was established. With training complete, the
task of the station in 1991 became "to maintain and operate an
The US Air Force has publicly identified the intelligence activity
at Sugar Grove as "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". The 1998-99 USAF Air Intelligence Agency Almanac
described the mission of the Sugar Grove unit as providing "enhanced
intelligence support to air force operational commanders and other
consumers of COMSAT information."
19 In 1990, satellite photographs
showed that there were 4 satellite antennae at Sugar Grove. By
November 1998, ground inspection revealed that this had expanded to
Further information published by the US Air Force identifies the US
Naval Security Group Station at Sabana Seca, Puerto Rico as a
interception site. Its mission is "to become the premier satellite
communications processing and analysis field station". These and
further documents concerning Echelon and COMSAT interception
stations at Yakima, Sabana Seco (Puerto Rico), Misawa (Japan) and
Guam have been published on the web.20
From 1984 onwards, Australia, Canada and
New Zealand joined the US
and the UK in operating Comsat (communications satellite)
interception stations. Australia’s site at Kojarena, Geraldton near
Perth in western Australia includes four interception dishes. The
station’s top targets include Japanese diplomatic and commercial
messages, communications of all types from and within North Korea,
and data on Indian and Pakistani nuclear weapons developments. A
second Australian satcom intercept site, at Shoal Bay in the
Northern Territories, mainly targets Australia’s northern neighbour,
Indonesia. Australian sources say however that Shoal Bay is not part
of the Echelon system, as Australia is unwilling to allow the US and
Britain to obtain raw intercepts directly.
The New Zealand site, Waihopai now has two dishes targeted on
Intelsat satellites covering the south Pacific. In 1996, shortly
after "Secret Power" was published, a New Zealand TV station
obtained images of the inside of the station’s operations centre.
The pictures were obtained clandestinely by filming through
partially curtained windows at night. The TV reporter was able to
film close-ups of technical manuals held in the control centre.
These were Intelsat technical manuals, providing confirmation that
the station targeted these satellites. Strikingly, the station was
seen to be virtually empty, operating fully automatically.
Before the introduction of Echelon, different countries and
different stations knew what was being intercepted and to whom it
was being sent. Now, all but a fraction of the messages selected by
Dictionary computers at remote sites may be forwarded to overseas
customers, normally NSA, without any local knowledge of the
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. In the post cold war years, the
staff levels at both NSA and GCHQ have contracted, and many overseas
listening posts have been closed or replaced by Remote Operations
Facilities, controlled from a handful of major field stations.
Although routinely denied, commercial and economic intelligence [http://www.heise.de/tp/english/inhalt/co/6662/1.html]
is now a major target of international sigint activity. Under a 1993
policy colloquially known as "levelling the playing field", the
United States government under President Clinton established new
trade and economic committees and told the NSA and CIA to act in
support of US businesses in seeking contracts abroad. In the UK, GCHQ’s enabling legislation from 1994 openly identifies 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".
Massive new storage and processing systems are being constructed to
provide on-line processing of the internet and new international
communications networks. By the early 1990s, both GCHQ and
employed "near line" storage systems capable of holding more than a
terabyte of data 21 . In the near future, they are likely to deploy
systems one thousand times larger. Key word spotting in the vast
volumes of intercepted daily written communications - telex, e-mail,
and data - is a routine task. "Word spotting" in spoken
communications is not an effective tool, but individual speaker
recognition techniques have been in use for up to 10 years. New
methods which have been developed during the 1990s will become
available to recognize the "topics" of phone calls, and may allow
NSA and its collaborators to automate the processing of the content
of telephone messages - a goal that has eluded them for 30 years.
Under the rubric of "information warfare", the sigint agencies also
hope to overcome the ever more extensive use of encryption by direct
interference with and attacks on targeted computers. These methods
remain controversial, but include information stealing viruses,
software audio, video, and data bugs, and pre-emptive tampering with
software or hardware ("trapdoors").
In the information age, we need to re-learn a lesson now a century
old. Despite the sophistication of 21st century technology, today’s
e-mails are as open to the eyes of snoopers and intruders as were
the first crude radio telegraph messages.
Part of the reason for
this is that, over many decades, NSA and its allies worked
determinedly to limit and prevent the privacy of international
telecommunications. Their goal was to keep communications
unencrypted and, thus, open to easy access and processing by systems
like Echelon. They knew that privacy and security, then as a century
ago, lay in secret codes or encryption.
Until such protections
become effective and ubiquitous, Echelon or systems like it, will
remain with us.
1) Available from the European
Parliament web site
The report is part of a series of four in a series on the
"Development of surveillance technology and risk of abuse of
economic information" [http://www.europarl.eu.int/dg4/stoa/en/publi/default.htm#up]
The report contains a detailed technical account of how
different types of communications are intercepted
2) "An appraisal of technologies of political control", report
for the European Parliament Scientific and Technological Options
office (STOA) by Dr Steve Wright, Omega Foundation, Manchester,
UK, January 1998.
3) The arrangements are sometimes called "TEXTA Authority".
TEXTA stands for "Technical Extracts of Traffic Analysis" and is
in effect a voluminous listing of every communications source
identified by each agency. It is catalogued and sorted by
countries, users, networks, types of communications system and
4) Called IRSIG
5) TCP/IP, or Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol.
6) "SCI", also known as Special Intelligence, is secret
intelligence for which codeword clearance is required. Special
regulations also apply to offices in which SCI is examined. They
must be physically secure and electromagnetically shielded.
These offices are known as SCIFs (SCI Facilities).
7) The US intelligence intranet is described in "Top Secret
Intranet: How U.S. Intelligence Built Intelink -- the world’s
largest, most secure network", by Frederick Martin (Prentice
8) The National Security Agency and Fourth Amendment Rights,
Hearings before the Select Committee to Study Government
Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, US Senate,
9) By the Paracel Corporation, as the FDF "Text-finder". It
claims to be the "fastest, most adaptive information
system in the world".
10) Oratory is described in "Spyworld", by Mike Frost and Michel
Gratton, Doubleday Canada, 1994. It was used to select messages
intercepted at clandestine embassy interception sites.
11) Address to the Symposium on "National Security and National
Competitiveness : Open Source Solutions" by Vice Admiral William
Studeman, Deputy Director of Central Intelligence and former
director of NSA, 1 December 1992, McLean, Virginia.
12) See reference 1, above.
13) Secret Power, by Nicky Hager. Craig Potton Publishing, New
14) New Statesman (UK), 12 August 1988. At the time, Ms Newsham
was a confidential source of information and was not identified
in the article. In February 2000, living in retirement and
facing a serious illness, Ms Newsham, said that she could be
identified as the original source of information on Echelon. She
also appeared on a CBS television programme about Echelon, Sixty
Minutes (shown on 27 February 2000).
15) See reference 16.
16) "Echelon P-377 Work Package for CARBOY II", published at
17) An independent organization that, among other functions.
catalogues US government documents obtained under Freedom of
18) Naval Security Group Command Regulation C5450.48A; see note
19) "Desperately Seeking Signals", Jeff Richelson, Bulletin of
the Atomic Scientists, March-April 2000.
20) The documents relating to Echelon stations can be found at
the National Security Archive web site [http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv].
21) A million megabytes, or 10 12 bytes.