Irregular Times ECHELON service

Big Brother Is Listening...Right Now

In the mid-1990s, Nicky Hager, author of "Exposing the Global Surveillance System", began to investigate reports of a world-wide telecommunications monitoring system. Investigations in his homeland of New Zealand eventually led him to a handful of disgruntled intelligence officers willing to talk. What he learned was so important that it made the Top 5 in Project Censored's Censored 1998: The Year's Top 25 Censored Stories. Here's what he contends:

  1. There exists a network of satellite-tracking facilities, collectively named ECHELON, girding the globe. These facilities are strategically placed so that almost any satellite orbiting the globe can be tracked at any time.

  2. The specific purpose of these facilities is to scan all available non-military communications in real time, and to record and reserve for further review those communications which contain certain keywords.

  3. The set of keywords, known as a "dictionary", varies for each of the five participating ECHELON countries: the U.S., Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The stations in each country's station scan for all the keywords of the other four countries. Every country in effect spies for the other countries. By working together, each country is able to review many more communications than it would working alone.

  4. Those communications which are available for scanning by ECHELON include all intercontinental communications and all communications within a country which are relayed by microwave antenna at some point. More specifically, these include phone calls, faxes, telexes, e-mails, and downloaded web pages. As a matter of fact, if you are reading this web page from somewhere outside the United States, it is being scanned for objectionable content right now.

irregular actionThe United States government has been able to spy on particular individual citizens for quite some time, using wire taps and the like. What's new about this system is its alleged ability to spy on all individuals, regardless of their status as criminals, suspects or citizens. According to Hager's expose, each and every communication which can be scanned is scanned, and all suspect communications are recorded and sent on to intelligence agents for further review.

As an official formerly with the UK's Government Communication Headquarters reported on a British television program, "It's nothing to do with national security. It's because it's not legal to take every single [communication]. And they take everything: the embassies, all the business deals, even the birthday greetings, they take everything. They feed it into the dictionary."

Why Spy?

If true, the ECHELON system represents an impressive technological achievement. What would it all be for? According to Hager,
"There is quite a lot of intelligence collected about potential terrorists, and there is quite a lot of economic intelligence, notably intensive monitoring of all the countries participating in GATT negotiations. But by far, the main priorities of the intelligence alliance continue be political and military intelligence to assist the larger allies to pursue their interests around the world. Anyone and anything the particular governments are concerned about can become a target. With capabilites so secret and so powerful, almost anything goes."

True Lies?

In his book, Hager says his goal was to accumulate so much information, in so much detail, that the believability of his account would be undeniable. There are two reasons you should be skeptical. First of all, you haven't read the damn book yourself, have you? How do you know for sure that I'm not lying to you and making the whole thing up? You don't. Fortunately, this situation can be corrected by reading the book yourself. The first two chapters of his book and an article featuring selections from the book are available online for your free and easy browsing.

Unfortunately, that doesn't take care of a second reason for skepticism. Why should we believe Hager's book is accurate? In an age when there are a whole lot of silly stories running around about Chupacabras and Ozark Howlers, who's to know what's real and what isn't? Maybe Hager just fabricated a grand story in grand detail. Maybe he's laughing at us right now for taking him seriously.

There are a few reasons to suspect Hager isn't snowing us. For one thing, he has a demonstrated past as an earnest human rights activist in New Zealand. At the very least, he isn't some college kid pulling a prank. In addition, there have been other reports which mesh with Hager's account:

  1. James Banford's work on the National Security Agency in the early 1980s discusses a similar but more primitive surveillance system operating between the five countries.

  2. The Rome Laboratory, an Air Force research lab working with the Government Technology Transfer Program, recently issued a report called "Transferring Defense Technology to Law Enforcement", in which they describe the military's ability to covertly record communication and identify the speaker via computers.

  3. Hager cites two anonymous appearances by British intelligence officers on BBC television. These officers make reference to ECHELON dictionaries and technologies.

  4. The European Parliament's Department for Scientific and Technological Option Assessment (STOA) completed a internal report earlier this year which independently details the existence and operation of the ECHELON system. According to the New York Times (February 24, 1998), "the report says that the network has the ability to tap into almost all international telecommunications as well as parts of domestic phone traffic and is apparently operated by intelligence agencies without any mechanism of democratic control...". A BBC news article available online further discusses the Parliament's report.

Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing for sure whether the ECHELON system really exists because the five alleged members of the UKUSA alliance - the United States, Great Britain, Canada, New Zealand and Australia - all refuse to discuss allegations related to ECHELON. However, the existence of these independent sources of information, telling remarkably similar stories, gives some credence to Hager's account.

So What?

So if this story is true, what does it mean? It means that, according to anonymous British sources, terror-mongering organizations such as Amnesty International and Christian Aid can become regular targets of surveillance. It means that any individual or organization which one of these countries deems dangerous to their interests can be watched, surveyed and studied with the cold, calculating efficiency of a computer. It means that you or I or anyone we know or don't know can be recorded as we speak or write to our friends, our colleagues, our loved ones, our employers, our enemies.

This sounds trivial and far away at first. What's the big deal for most of us law-abiding, right-living citizens? Who cares if they're going to intercept secret fruitcake recipes shared between some lady in Sandusky and her nephew Cletus? Put that way, it sounds more like a big joke than anything else.

But if there is a joke, the joke's all on us. As Hager writes in his book, Secret Power, "the secrecy surrounding it makes it so impervious to democratic oversight, that the temptation to use it for questionable projects seems irresistible". Each and every one of us has something in our lives about which we are not proud, something we would like to keep others from finding out. Even the greatest of us, the leaders and the inspirational among us, have something to hide. Imagine the power of someone who can record those secrets and use them against us. This is the power our governments may now hold.

...So Do Something About It!





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