- Beware: you are being tracked by the
government. Your phone calls are being monitored, your faxes and e-mails
are being read.
- It is a classic Big Brother cliche, but
it may also be reality, according to information emerging about a global
surveillance network called Echelon, which is run by the United States
National Security Agency in conjunction with intelligence operations
in Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand.
- The Free Congress Foundation, a Washington
D.C.-based civil liberties group, recently published a report detailing
the system and is planning, along with the American Civil Liberties Union
and other groups, to pressure Congress into investigating it.
- "Echelon is the most terrifying
kind of surveillance that exists because you have no way of knowing if
you're being listened to and you have no recourse and you have no privacy,"
said Cassidy Sehgal, a lawyer for the ACLU.
- A remnant of the Cold War that has continued
to advance in the digital era, Echelon reportedly uses land-based intercept
stations, as well as ships and satellites, to collect electronic and fiber-optic
transmissions at an estimated rate of 5 million per minute.
- "It basically means the U.S. is
vacuuming the telecommunications of the world," Jim Dempsey, senior
staff counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology said.
- The collected information is fed through
sophisticated computers capable of voice and optical recognition, as well
as code-breaking and translation. By searching for key words chosen by
the participating nations, the computers flag certain transmissions, which
are then reviewed by intelligence analysts, according to the Free Congress
study and other reports.
- In countries other than the participating
Echelon nations, "the NSA just does it on its own," Dempsey said.
- "It's a giant fishing expedition,"
said Louis Wolf, co-publisher of Covert Action, a quarterly magazine. "The
fact that the U.S. has managed to achieve this capability to achieve this
level of surveillance technologically as well as politically should be
a very disturbing fact for people who are learning about it for the first
- The current hubbub over an espionage
system that has reportedly been operating, in some form, since the early
'70s, has been gaining steam since January, when the European Parliament
acknowledged its existence in a report entitled "An Appraisal of Technology
of Political Control."
- Before that, said Lisa Dean of Free Congress,
"It was pretty much dismissed as a sort of a black helicopter conspiracy."
- "It's really the first acknowledgment
by a government body that Echelon is up and running and has been for two
decades," said Sehgal of the ACLU. "We're really hoping that
the dialogue that the European Union has started is going to force some
more openness about what is going on."
- The surveillance is believed to focus
on international calls or messages, though some suspect domestic communication
is targeted as well, alleging that participating nations use the network
to share information on their own citizens, a move that subverts each nation's
- "We won't confirm or deny the existence
of such a system," said NSA spokeswoman Judith Emmel. "We don't
comment on alleged intelligence matters."
- This kind of response has left the field
wide open for speculation and, increasingly, condemnation. "Turning
it on allies and using it as a surveillance system for one another's citizens"there's
no justification for that," Lisa Dean said.
- "It's coming to the point where
we have to decide whether we're going to destroy the Constitution in order
to protect it," Sehgal said.
- Part of the stated mission of the National
Security Agency is indeed signals intelligence.
- It's not the existence of such a spy
operation that troubles most critics, it's Echelon's seemingly indiscriminate
nature and lack of regulation.
- "I would acknowledge a need for
intelligence gathering," said Wolf. "What worries me is not the
fact that we have it, but its applications."
- Glyn Ford, a British member of the European
Parliament, agrees. "Basically, we don't have a problem with the notion
of electronic surveillance, what we want to make sure there is some sort
of degree of democratic control " who's listening to what and what
use the information is put to."
- The parliament has recently commissioned
a second report, due out next summer, to investigate allegations that the
collected information has been used for commercial espionage to give U.S.
companies an edge in competition with European corporations. In one of
numerous allegations that have surfaced in press reports, French airplane
manufacturer Airbus Industrie reportedly lost a $1-billion contract to
Boeing and McDonnell Douglas because of information allegedly passed along
by U.S. intelligence.
- "If you're gonna leave the electronic
key under the doormat you don't expect your neighbors to steal the family
silver," Ford said.
- The Free Congress Foundation report asserts
that such pilfering is a regular process and that the Department of Commerce's
Office of Intelligence Liaison regularly passes along such sensitive information
to interested corporations. Mary Trupo, deputy director of public affairs
at Commerce, said she inquired about the allegation and that "nobody
is familar with such activity."
- It is possible, of course, that the Echelon
network is not breaking laws and is not the menace it's being made out
- "It is important to note that very
few messages and phone calls are actually transcribed and recorded by the
system," the report said. "The vast majority are filtered out
after they are read or listened to by the system."
- "I don't really believe that they're
able to interpret that much," added Wolf.
- And, points out Ford, the growing clamor
over the hi-tech spy technology may be all for naught. "There are
allegations of misuse, there is no proof of misuse," Ford noted.
- But even if Echelon is truly limited
and is used for only the purest anti-crime causes, Congress should still
investigate it, Dean said. "The fact that such a system even exists
is enough to cause concern," Dean said.
- Wolf isn't sure how much attention the
surveillance network can possibly receive from the lawmakers. Congress
"will discuss perhaps a portion of it " a smaller portion of
it," he said, noting a possible sticking point: "All the members
of the House or Senate intelligence committee are sworn to secrecy."
- But Dempsey notes a crackdown could happen
if Echelon ends up hurting the U.S.
- "There is, at least in the U.S.,
the underlying concern on the part of the Justice Department that criminal
prosecutions with an international connection can be jeopardized in the
absence of clear rules," he said. "So the government may lose
cases, courts may begin excluding evidence where surveillance is conducted
overseas for law enforcement purposes without privacy standards in place."