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ECH ELON

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120 @ Augusl 2000

ECH ELON


Augusl 2000 e i2l


CODE NAME ECHELON

internet-like encrypted network of computers.

Analysrs might,request somerhing on gence headquarters), and worked closely

and GCHQ(the UK government's intelli-

Osama Brn Laden, lltA... whatever. They wirh both organisations. Frost's hoarse voice

punch the request in and, just like Alta

Vista, back comes the material.

"Dictionary sounds weary when he speaks. He has a conscience.

That weight compelled him to write

Nlanagers" update the important keywords his book, S2lootld: "I'm very concerned

regularly. In this fashion, immensq complex about the fact that these organisations in the

cmounts of intelligence are distilled - via five countries of the agreement have relatively

little accountability."

Echeloo cornputers and analysts - into readable

intelligence reports.

For anyone researching the subject of

The whole operation is run by the NSA, Echelon, speaking to someone like Mike

with its headquarters in Fort Meade, Frost is a relief He maintains there are many

Maryland, USA. It does not, like the CIA,

carry out "opemtions":

more like him who want to speak out but

it just gathers intelligence.

Its business is covert intelligence Frost spent 20 years in signals intelligence,

rvon't, mostly for fear ofofficial repdsals.

interception, collection, analysis, production spying for Canada. Headmits that \a'hen talking

to journalists like me he "walks a very,

of reports and finally dissemination to ils

other government agency

"customerc".

very fine line. Most of the things that I'm

The only authoritative book ever written saying [are] a judgement call on me." His

about the NSA is The Puzzle Pulace by interview rules include the stipulation that

Washington DC journalist James Bamford: he'll never damage his country's security; he

"Most Americans have very little ideaofwhat

the NSA is," Bamford told me. "There's won't divulge anything that could put an

individual's life in danger at home or abroad;

never been an employee who's ever written a and he won't talk in specific terms about

book from the NSA. And the NSA is three codes or code breaking. But he remarks,

times the size ofthe CIA."

"When I was in a foreign country eavesdroppingon

their domesticommunications from

The writer Duncan Campbell, now based

at the Electronic Privacy Information Centre the safe conflnes ofthe Canadian Embassy, I

in Washington DC, recently heightened knew damn well I was breaking the law."

public awaleness ofEchelon when he published

his landmark European Parliament years to become even partially visible. It

The exact nature of Echelon has taken

strdy c,alled Interceqtion Ca2abilities 2000.

He told me: "ft's attracts abstract descriptions that make it

not legal. lt is the business seem like an all-seeing, all-listening, allpervasiv

electronic monolith. Inevitably a

of spying... Conventions, including the

Declaration ofHuman fughts, speak ofnever great dealofthe incoming traffic from global

being subject to albitrary interference with surveillance is now controlled and filtered

privacy or colrespondence. And yet that's by computers. This dlows thesystem to cope

precisely... whatEchelonisabout. Arbitrary, with rnassive amounts of intelligence.

uniform, non-specifig and lawless." Compurers work full-time in remote starions

That's not what the NSA says. Call their

HQand you'll be told: "The with only a few staffoverseeing thern. Maybe

NSA does not that's why Echelon feels like something out

comment on actual or alleged intelligence of a novel or movie, something easily dismissed

as a paranoid fantasy - until you hear

activities. Its activities are conducted lvith

the highest constitutional, legal and ethical what Mike Frost has to say.

"The strain is

standards." The UK's MoD spokesperson tough. I coped with it by getting addicted to

in Whitehall was only slightly more forthcoming

about Menwith Hill's activities: I haven't had a drink now in over l0 years."

alcohol... I became a roaring alcoholic. But

"It's a communications facilitS part of a A few days prior to talking to Frost, I'd

worldwide network which is maintained by walked past the famous row ofinternational

the US and UK and serves both UK and embassies in Kensington, London. You only

NATO interests. It opelates with the full have to glance up at the roofs to spot sophisticated

equipment. Frost explains: "I lvould

knowledge of HM Government and UK

personnel are integmted at every level." say that the majodty ofthe ernbassies would

have some intercept capability. Some fulltime

and some part-time."

Laws are, as Frost admitted, being broken.

One ot lfte most slartlitq fact$ ot t||e

material that exists about the NSA is that

you'll search in vain for first-hond resrimonies

from people who've worked for it.

Mike Frost, a retired 6l-year-old Canadian

ex-spy, is one ofthe very few prepared to go

on the record. Frost lvas employed by the

Communications Security Establishment

(CSE), the Canadian equivalent ofthe NSA

No judges have been approached for rtrarrants,

no target is legitimately suspected of

having done anything illegal. Some countlies

villingly help out their allies. He tells me

about a startling request his depaltment

received in the early Eighties which he

alleees emanated from then Prime Nlinister

Margaret Thatcher: "GCHQasked us if

we could do something to help the Prime

Minister, as she believed trvo ofher ministers

vere not (on side'. We agreed to do it.

A Canadian rvent over to London, housed

himself in Macdonald House, and started to

intercept the frequencies that were giv€n to

us by GCHQ To my knowledge it was a successful

operation. Now that's a grcat way to

do it because there's complete deniability in

the House of Commons xnd Parlirment in

your country because they can stand up and

say,'We did not do this."'

That's why Echelon is attractive: it's the

intelligence world's version ofthe so-called

"surgical-strike"

missiles that "take-out" the

targets in operations which might involve

"collateral damage": such language doesn't

hide the civilian fatalities in real war any

more than it masks the bin-raking activity of

intelligence gathering nor conceals the sordid

invasion of privacy that occurs in the

process. Yet, so successful is Echelon that it

can hardly handlc the material it gathers, as

Mike Frost concedes:

"Collecting all this

stuffis not the problem: solting it out is."

For years it's been believed that security

sewices have a piece ofsurveillance technology

that will listen for certain target words

in telephone conversations and automatically

start recording when it hears them. Frost

explains:

"A lot ofmoney, a lot ofengineering

went into the voice recognition system

ofselection... In those days they were able

to get the computers to recognise a voice that

had been plogrammed into the computer

previously." Frost has used this equipment:

it works. However, he recalls one amusing

incident where a telephone number was

being spat out by the computer because a

voice on the line constantly used the word

"bombing":"We checked into it... It was a

mortician's phone and he was using the word

'embalming'."

Duncan Campbell says that voice "print"

technology has been used since the mid-

Nineties. IfEchelon has a recording ofyour

voiceit can scancalls, find you and track your

conversation. The NSA is devising a system

to recognise keywords, ironing out problems

caused by accents and ambient noise.

Alleged recent targets of the NSA/

Echelon spying operation have been organisations

like Greenpeace and Amnesty

International, and individuals including the

Pope, Mother Theresa, and Diana, Princess

of Wales. The latter was targeted because of

her work relating to the banning of landmines.

"It would fhave been] easy to get her,

she had such a distinctive voice..." says Mike

Frost. It's been alleged that the tapes ofher

private calls released to the press in the

Nineties may have come fiom Echelon.

122 @ Augusl 2000


Nlore information about this UKUSA

Iistening system emerged in 1992 when

disaffected GCHQemployees gave examples

ofspying on charities such as Christian Aid

and Amnesty. Another British human rights

organisation Liberty was also targeted by

the security services. John Wadham, its

director, told me: "We know thatLiberty was

under some kind ofsurveillance by MI5. We

took our case to Snasbourg and again the

Government had to bring forward legislation...

to regulate the activities of MI5...

There's a complaints mechanism set up

under the 1985 act which has never upheld

one single complaint since it was set up"

In 1998, Home SecretaryJack Straw authorised

more than 2,000 interception warrants

- an average ofseven every working day. In

total since 1986. over 20.000 have been issued.

Yet much ofEchelon's surveillance is done

illegally. The number ofwarrants issued and

their restrictions therefore become unimoortant.

Such violations aren't recorded.

Ev€n enclypted messages aren't, in legal

never mind electronic terms, safe. The

Government's Regulation of Invesrigatory

Powers Bill now going through Parliament

means it can gain access to such material by

forcing its suspecto hand over the encryption

key, or the information itself This puts

the onus on the target ro prove his innocence,

thus r€versing the burden of guilt.

Shockingly, until the beginning ofthis year,

software from the main US companies was

also wide open to NSA,/Echelon examination.

The European Parliament report says:

"In 1995, [the] NSA became concerned

about cryptographic security systems being

built into internet and email software by

Microsoft, Netscape and Lotus. The companies

agreed to adapt their software to

reduce the level ofsecurity provided to users

outside the US." So, if you weren't a US

citizen, the NSA could peer straight into

your PC.

The NSlfs secretiveness has led to accusations

that it uses Echelon to help US

companies in foreign business deals. They

allegedly intercept highly detailed communications

intelligence about irnrninent deals

that is passed on to US cornpanies. It's never

been a secret that from as far back as the

Seventies the US has put its economic intelligence

priorities on a par with diplomaric,

military and technological intelligence.

Echelon was allegedly used by the US to listen

in to deals between the European Airbus

consortium, the Saudi national airline

and the Saudi government. Blibes changed

hands. When news ofthe sweetenels reached

the US government's ears via the NSA, they

acted swiftly-aUS company eventually won

a $6 billion contract.

New information uncovered by the US

MSNBC news organisation illustrates how

the US government utilises Echelon in this

process. It gives a lie to the official claim that

intellicence is not used for the benefit of US

companies. Its government

has always denied passing on

any information that could

assist US companies which

it comes across during its

covert electronic activities.

That is not strictly true:

instead the NSA passes the

information to another government

official in another

department who personally

intervenes in a deal - eg,

where bribes are on the table

- and says that the whole

arrangement should be called

off unless the host country

wants its relations with the

US to go sour. Inevitably,

deals are scrapped, restarted,

and it's US companies who

are always in the strongest

position to benefit.

The use ofeconomic intelligence

is now US policy.

James Woolsey, the former

CIA director, has stated:

"A number of countries...

including some of our oldest friends, are

very much irtto the business ofbribing their

way to contracts that they cannot wln on

merits... Rather frequently what happens rs

that when the contract is re-bid, sometimes

the Amelicafl corporation gets a share ofit...

Sometimes not. But we calculate, really very

conservatively, that several billion dollars a

year in contracts are saved for US business."

This has enraged many European countries,

including France where several commercial

and private lawsuits againsthe US,/NSlils

use ofEchelon are currently pending.

Could the US be using the Echelon system

to spy also on the UK, one ofits "oldest

friends"? Could a US employee in Menwith

Hill be eavesdropping this very minute on

conversations being held in Whitehalli I put

this question to Mike Frost. "IfI said to you

that the US was perhaps eavesdropping oo

Tony Blair, how would you respond?"

Frost didn't even pause: "I would say they

probably are..."

That's the high price the UK pays for

being a member of the exclusive Echelon

club. Thanks to technology, the more

independent we rhr[ we're becoming, the

less we actually are. If privacy isn't dead

just yet you can be sure - courtesy of the

NSA/GCHQEchelon system - thar ir is

terminally ill. @

All MoD cons

Menwith Hillis MoD

activiry there is staffed

and funded by the US

Your cellulor

phone is o

mobile trocking

device. A prison

togoround

your

onkle couldn't

do o better iob

Augusl 2000@ 12s

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