20 December 2005

Echelon is the name of Big Brother

In the greatest surveillance effort ever established, the US National Security Agency (NSA) created a global spy system, codename ECHELON, which captures and analyzes virtually every phone call, fax, email and telex message sent anywhere in the world. ECHELON is controlled by the NSA and is operated in conjunction with the Government Communications Head Quarters (GCHQ) of England, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) of Canada, the Australian Defense Security Directorate (DSD), and the General Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) of New Zealand. These organizations are bound together under a secret 1948 agreement, UKUSA, whose terms and text remain under wraps even today.

The ECHELON system is fairly simple in design: position intercept stations all over the world to capture all satellite, microwave, cellular and fiber-optic communications traffic, and then process this information through the massive computer capabilities of the NSA, including advanced voice recognition and optical character recognition (OCR) programs, and look for code words or phrases (known as the ECHELON “Dictionary”) that will prompt the computers to flag the message for recording and transcribing for future analysis. Intelligence analysts at each of the respective “listening stations” maintain separate keyword lists for them to analyze any conversation or document flagged by the system, which is then forwarded to the respective intelligence agency headquarters that requested the intercept.

Processing millions of messages every hour, the ECHELON systems churn away 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, looking for targeted keyword series, phone and fax numbers, and specified voiceprints. It is important to note that very few messages and phone calls are actually transcribed and recorded by the system. The vast majority are filtered out after they are read or listened to by the system. Only those messages that produce keyword “hits” are tagged for future analysis. Again, it is not just the ability to collect the electronic signals that gives ECHELON its power; it is the tools and technology that are able to whittle down the messages to only those that are important to the intelligence agencies.

While UKUSA agencies have pursued economic and commercial information on behalf of their countries with renewed vigor after the passing of communism in Eastern Europe, the NSA practice of spying on behalf of US companies has a long history. Gerald Burke, who served as Executive Director of President Nixon’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, notes commercial espionage was endorsed by the US government as early as 1970: “By and large, we recommended that henceforth economic intelligence be considered a function of the national security, enjoying a priority equivalent to diplomatic, military, and technological intelligence.”<54>

To accommodate the need for information regarding international commercial deals, the intelligence agencies set up a small, unpublicized department within the Department of Commerce, the Office of Intelligence Liaison. This office receives intelligence reports from the US intelligence agencies about pending international deals that it discreetly forwards to companies that request it or may have an interest in the information. Immediately after coming to office in January 1993, President Clinton added to the corporate espionage machine by creating the National Economic Council, which feeds intelligence to “select” companies to enhance US competitiveness. The capabilities of ECHELON to spy on foreign companies is nothing new, but the Clinton administration has raised its use to an art:

In 1990 the German magazine Der Speigel revealed that the NSA had intercepted messages about an impending $200 million deal between Indonesia and the Japanese satellite manufacturer NEC Corp. After President Bush intervened in the negotiations on behalf of American manufacturers, the contract was split between NEC and AT&T.
In 1994, the CIA and NSA intercepted phone calls between Brazilian officials and the French firm Thomson-CSF about a radar system that the Brazilians wanted to purchase. A US firm, Raytheon, was a competitor as well, and reports prepared from intercepts were forwarded to Raytheon.<55>
In September 1993, President Clinton asked the CIA to spy on Japanese auto manufacturers that were designing zero-emission cars and to forward that information to the Big Three US car manufacturers: Ford, General Motors and Chrysler.<56> In 1995, the New York Times reported that the NSA and the CIA’s Tokyo station were involved in providing detailed information to US Trade Representative Mickey Kantor’s team of negotiators in Geneva facing Japanese car companies in a trade dispute.<57> Recently, a Japanese newspaper, Mainichi, accused the NSA of continuing to monitor the communications of Japanese companies on behalf of American companies.<58>
Insight Magazine reported in a series of articles in 1997 that President Clinton ordered the NSA and FBI to mount a massive surveillance operation at the 1993 Asian/Pacific Economic Conference (APEC) hosted in Seattle. One intelligence source for the story related that over 300 hotel rooms had been bugged for the event, which was designed to obtain information regarding oil and hydro-electric deals pending in Vietnam that were passed on to high level Democratic Party contributors competing for the contracts.<59> But foreign companies were not the only losers: when Vietnam expressed interest in purchasing two used 737 freighter aircraft from an American businessman, the deal was scuttled after Commerce Secretary Ron Brown arranged favorable financing for two new 737s from Boeing.<60>

All of this power is very well and good when used properly. Therin lies the problem. The Constituion of the US implements a series of checks and balances so that no single branch of goverment can blackmail the others in pursuit of their own vested interests. The problem with such a system is that there are no checks and balances. Unscrupulous people could potentially "spy" on political rivals under the guise of "national security". As an example here is a story of the RCMP using the sytem to track Margaret Trudeau, the wife of them Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, for 3 months because she was accused of using marijuana. The story proved unfounded but it allowed teh RCMP to listen to all of her conversations for this period. As you can see this could have very big political ramifications.

I think that this also highlights the problem that the Bush Administration faces. Since the system is set up to target all communications and then select, via software, key words, it is virtually impossible to know who is being targeted until they are targeted....an there could be thousands of people that have ot be sifted from the noise.

This should prove to be an interesting dilemma for congress to sort out

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