Antoni's Wire Service

Date: Fri, 5 Feb 1999 20:20:44 -0400 (AST)
From: Antoni Wysocki <>
To: all & sundry
Subject: surveillance technologies

Hi everybody,

There was a brief stir recently when it was revealed that the UN weapons inspection team in Iraq had facilitated the illicit monitoring of communications within that country by the United States. It is only right that this should have occasioned some outrage - indeed, the outcry was much less than it ought to have been - but I feel we should also spare some of our anger for conditions closer to home.

The USA (with assistance from the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada) maintains a surveillance network capable of intercepting almost all electronic transmissions worldwide. Moreover, it is not a question of this system (codenamed ECHELON) being capable in principle of such global oversight : this gargantuan spy operation is at work this moment, as it has been for many years.

ECHELON operatives have access to just about very telephone conversation, interactive cable television broadcast, fax and e-mail message anywhere (and everywhere) on earth. Without regard to national and international guarantees of privacy rights ECHELON agents screen the communications of organizations and individuals at will.

For regular operating purposes ECHELON casts a very broad net : for all intents and purposes the sum total of global telecommunications is trawled. Obviously with such a vast target there is a need to establish strict search parameters. This is done by programming computers to pick out e-mail or faxes which contain specified terms.

These key words are top secret but one can surely make reasonable guesses at some of them. Likely some are topical (e.g. "Jaggi Singh" might have been put on the list in the run-up to APEC-Vancouver) while others would be of longer standing ("Iraq") and still others permanent ("nuclear device").

Once the computers have separated out correspondence containing suspicious terminology the messages are then examined by humans to determine if the references are consequential. This is still an enormous task - which is one of the reasons why the National Security Agency (NSA; the top secret United States spy organization at the heart of ECHELON) has 20,000 personnel; far more than the much better known Central Intelligence Agency.

Another manner in which ECHELON can be deployed is for the tracking of predetermined targets. The system does this by logging all communications originating from a given source. These could be files from a particular computer, calls from a given telephone and so on.

Nicky Hager, a New Zealand journalist who has been most prominent in uncovering the workings of the UKUSA pact, also mentions a voice decoding device said to be used by the NSA. According to one of Hager's sources ECHELON deploys a program (Oratory) which ostensibly is able to monitor phone conversations and recognize the use of key words. Hager notes that he could not independently confirm this claim.

ECHELON has its roots in World War 2, when intelligence agencies from the five states mentioned above collaborated in analysis of enemy radio transmissions. In 1947 the quintet formalized these arrangements in the so-called UKUSA treaty (even this name is somewhat misleading : of the 5 signatories only the US has access to all data collected). Since then the operation has grown ever larger, fuelled - especially latterly - by advances in telecommunication technologies. The justification, of course, was the need to know what the communists were up to.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union ECHELON, in common with the rest of the military/industrial complex, had to seek a new rationale for its existence. Given the extreme secrecy surrounding it this was perhaps easier for ECHELON than for others. On the very rare occasions that the operation has been challenged it is said that the information it seeks and gathers pertains to the activities of suspected terrorists. While some recognize that "terrorist" is a politically loaded term (e.g. Sandinistas were terrorists because they opposed US interests; contras were "freedom fighters" because they were pro-US) many people would tend to approve of "anti-terrorist" activity.

While this is doubtless one of the ends to which ECHELON data is put the system is also employed for a number of other purposes, all of them designed to advance Washington's perceived interests. Thus during the Uruguay Round negotiations on the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade - international trade rules in force from 1945) ECHELON was used to eavesdrop on closed-door parleys between the non-US delegations and between emissaries and their home governments. ECHELON has even been used to aid individual American corporations by, e.g., tipping them of to details on sealed bids for international contracts.

Beyond its applications to the fields of counter-terrorism and industrial espionage ECHELON is preoccupied with the defence of US "national interests", domestically and abroad. This means scanning for any groups or individuals known or believed to oppose any of Washington's policies deemed significant.

Those at all familiar with the deeply conservative world view common to state security apparatuses will not then be surprised to find that ECHELON has long spied unceasingly on such dangerous organizations as Christian Aid and Amnesty International. Anyone finding this farfetched has only to consider that Canadian security forces have investigated the Raging Grannies as well as Joan Russow, the leader of Canada's Green Party.

Nor is ECHELON the only game in town : in 1997 the US, Canada, Australia, Norway, New Zealand and the European Union signed a memorandum of understanding for a whole new international scheme of clandestine surveillance. Under the EU element of the plan, Enfopol 98, European telecommunications companies will be required to build tapping connections into their systems. Each EU country's 'interception interface' must be capable of allowing member states to tap communications throughout the EU.

One response to revelations concerning these extraordinary assaults on privacy has been the use of encryption technologies on the Internet. As the name suggests encryption renders data in coded forms intelligible only to those privy to the cipher's key. The US, naturally, has campaigned vigorously against encryption and in December/98 persuaded the 33 signatories of the Wassenaar Agreement to place strict export controls on such technologies.

For those interested in further reading on this subject I would recommend Nicky Hager's ECHELON expose Secret Power, published in 1996 by Covert Action Quarterly. A chapter from Secret Power and information on how to order the book is available at

An excellent online resource is the September/98 official report to the European Parliament on "Technologies of Political Control". This harrowing document covers a number of topics including : crowd control; prison control; interrogation techniques; and torture techniques. Its discussion of ECHELON can be found at :