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NSA'S ECHELON Program

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NSA'S ECHELON PROGRAM
This article traces the historical
development of the NSA ECHELON
program. Aspects include non-
classified information on how
ECHELON works as well as the
impact seen today from the system
NSA's ECHELON
Program
INTL621 – M.A. Intelligence Studies
Mark Raduenzel – INTL647 Dec. 2014
NSA'S ECHELON PROGRAM
MARK RADUENZEL – INTL647 DEC. 2014 1
Introduction
The ECHELON program created by the National Security Agency (NSA) was first revealed in a New
Statesman article on August 12, 1988 by British investigative reporter Duncan Campbell, a former
employee at the United Kingdom’s main listening station at Menwith Hill (Dover 2014, 127). Even at that
time, it was clear ECHELON was a mature system which may have already existed for at least a decade, if
not longer. In 1996, Nicky Hager provided a more detailed description in his book, Secret Power: New
Zealand’s Role in the International Spy Network, shining a spotlight on this highly classified and
controversial system (Richelson 2000, 49). Both authors wrote in detail regarding ECHELON’s
interception of telecommunications traffic all across the globe by the UKUSA (United States, Great
Britain, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand) alliance.
Political controversy soon followed, especially in Europe. According to Richelson, fear of monitoring by
the government led to a January 1998 report for the European Parliament in which an Appraisal of
Technologies of Political Control committee, claimed "within Europe, all e-mail, telephone, and fax
communications are routinely intercepted by the United States National Security Agency, transferring all
target information from the European mainland ... to Fort Meade in Maryland” (Richelson 2000, 47).
This public suspicion of government surveillance continues to this day. But what exactly is ECHELON and
what is it capable of?
History
The original design and specific capabilities of ECHELON are still classified, making research difficult but
not impossible. We can surmise that ECHELON originated in computerized processing and network
technologies from the 1970s. SIGINT systems which were created and implemented during the Cold War
tended to be geared towards intercepting diplomatic, espionage or military communications. ECHELON,
NSA'S ECHELON PROGRAM
MARK RADUENZEL – INTL647 DEC. 2014 2
on the other hand, was specifically designed for monitoring almost all electronic communications within
both public and private sectors across the globe (Rudner 2001, 111).
To make this capacity possible, the United States has placed a variety of geosynchronous, elliptically and
low-earth satellites into orbit which catch electronic communications, missile telemetry and emanations
from radar. Distributed ground stations in Britain, Germany, Australia and Colorado control the satellites
and receive the signals intercepted from the satellites (Richelson 2000, 48). These satellites are
maintained by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and work in concert with other
telecommunication links which “can be used to siphon off messages travelling by satellite, microwave
relay link or fibre optic cable, if they intercept such streams at a key node, and can work at a prodigious
rate of more than 2 million intercepts per hour” (Wright 2005, 199). With this infrastructure in place, it
is possible to intercept the vast majority of all electronic telecommunications including phone, fax and
emails practically anywhere around the world.
ECHELON is so extensive and intrusive that it does not discriminate which communications are siphoned
up. Instead, its design allows the UKUSA Signals Intelligence alliance (made up of the United States,
Great Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand) to use the system to intercept both military and non-
military government communications and private sector organizations and businesses. The UKUSA
nations designate which items are of intelligence value by providing selected keywords to monitor for
(Richelson 2000, 47). As we shall see, this keyword identification functionality is fundamental to how the
system operates.
The ECHELON system links an array of large-scale computer processing capabilities which enables the
various intercept sites to function as a single integrated SIGINT network. By sorting through vast flows of
telecommunications traffic, the interception and processing technologies identify specifically targeted
messaging. A messages is specifically identified as an item of interest through the use of ‘Dictionary’
computers. On each of these computers is stored a comprehensive database which contains designated
NSA'S ECHELON PROGRAM
MARK RADUENZEL – INTL647 DEC. 2014 3
targets, enumerated by explicit names, topics of interest, addresses, telephone numbers and other
factors necessary for target identification. The Dictionary computers are only kept at NSA SIGINT
interception facilities linked into the ECHELON system. (Rudner 2001, 111). At each interception facility,
the Dictionary computer contains not only the parent organization’s designated keywords, but also a list
of each cooperating SIGINT agency’s keywords. As the millions of intercepted messages are searched for
a keyword in the Dictionary, any match is then flagged as an item of interest and shipped off to the
computers of the requesting agency (Richelson 2000, 49).
Since there is not a system of accountability regarding ECHELON, it is extremely difficult to discover the
criteria used to determine who is or who is not a target. Certainly with the United States’ current focus
on terrorism, we can assume that much of the information gathered is about potential terrorists. In
addition to monitoring possible terrorists, Wright asserts “there is a lot of economic intelligence, notably
intensive monitoring of all countries participating in the GATT negotiations” (Wright 2005, 113).
Furthermore, intelligence-sharing arrangements increase the number of targets to include
“transnational targets of common interest: terrorism, proliferation, and organized crime” (Wippl 2012,
11). The targets can change as often as national security priorities change, made easier by the flexible
system design.
Issues
Does sifting through such a vast volume of collected data produce any valuable intelligence? While it
may be tempting to think it would be impossible to find something useful, former NSA Director William
Studeman noted in 1992 “one intelligence collection system alone can generate a million inputs per half
hour; filters throw away all but 6500 inputs; only 1,000 inputs meet forwarding criteria; 10 inputs are
normally selected by analysts and only one report is produced. These are routine statistics for a number
of intelligence collection and analysis systems which collect technical intelligence" (Dover 2014, 128).
NSA'S ECHELON PROGRAM
MARK RADUENZEL – INTL647 DEC. 2014 4
Even from the early days of the program, NSA seems equipped to produce intelligence from a massive
volume of data.
However, with the explosive growth of global telecommunications since 1992 analyzing the collected
data has become more challenging. Gill reports that twenty-two years later, in 2014, between 1 and 2
billion records a day are collected by the ECHELON system. The NSA and the Office of the Director of
National Intelligence (ODNI) claim the agency only touches “1.6% of internet traffic and that analysts
‘look at’ 0.00004%” (Gill 2014, 19). So, if we assume 2 billion records a day are collected by the system,
we can extrapolate that 1.6% of collected messages amounts to 32 million records which are actually
touched. However, out of the 32 million records, analysts will examine approximately 80,000, a
seemingly overwhelming task. It would appear that vacuuming up such a vast quantity of information
amounts to looking for a very small needle in a rather large haystack.
Perhaps due to the perception of information overload combined with the capability of collecting mass
amounts of data is why the ECHELON program came under fire for failing to prevent the terrorist attacks
in New York on September 11, 2001. Wright’s contention is that this highly invasive intelligence program
should only be able to justify its existence if it was able to detect and avert such atrocities (Wright 2005,
2014). In rebuttal to this assertion, however, Hughes-Wilson notes "the White House National
Coordinator for Counter Terrorism, Richard Clarke, had issued a warning of impending attack to all
agencies, and the National Security Agency (NSA) had collected clear intelligence from ECHELON (the
international electronic eavesdropping network) that the White House, Pentagon and WTC were Al-
Qa’ida targets" (Hughes-Wilson 2010, 67). This would indicate ECHELON had indeed done its part in
warning policy makers of this event.
ECHELON most likely paved the way for the proliferation of global SIGINT monitoring since now all
governments, except only the poorest, can take part in comprehensive surveillance of electronic
communications. The European Union has implemented its own signals intercept surveillance system
NSA'S ECHELON PROGRAM
MARK RADUENZEL – INTL647 DEC. 2014 5
named “Enfopol”. To give this surveillance system authority, the European Parliament passed the Legal
Intercept of Telecommunications Resolution in 1995. One key component of the Resolution was to
require satellite telephone operators to cooperate with European police forces in intercepting,
recording, and translating any electronic communication. Noticeably missing is language limiting the
collection to only communications within the European Union (Wettering 2001, 355). This places
Enfopol in the same league as the ECHELON program. France and Germany are known to have their own
SIGINT programs and intelligence sharing agreements on top of, and in addition to, the European Union
and Enfopol (Wettering 2001, 356).
The Federal Agency of Government Communications and Information (FAPSI) is Russia’s closest
equivalent to the United States’ National Security Agency. In addition to FAPSI, Russia’s external
intelligence service (SVR), internal security service (FSB) and the military intelligence service (GRU) all
intercept and monitor electronic communications (Wettering 2001, 356). Keenan claims the Soviet
Union also had a network similar to ECHELON, named “Dozor” (Keenan 2005, 42f). Most likely, Dozor is
still active and operates under the auspices of the FAPSI today.
Not to be outdone, the Third (Technical) Department of the People’s Liberation Army General Staff
operates China’s own signal intercept program. The Third Department maintains satellite
communication stations which intercept messages from Russian, as well as American, satellites. China’s
Ministry of Public Security (the police force) also actively monitors telecommunications (Wettering 2001,
356). This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to global electronic surveillance systems, especially
considering that Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand all take part in the ECHELON system.
Even small countries like Myanmar and Thailand have a SIGINT system which monitors e-mail and phone
calls (Wettering 2001, 353). In fact, it is increasingly harder to find a government which does not have
the capability to monitor telecommunications.
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NSA'S ECHELON Program

  • 1. NSA'S ECHELON PROGRAM This article traces the historical development of the NSA ECHELON program. Aspects include non- classified information on how ECHELON works as well as the impact seen today from the system NSA's ECHELON Program INTL621 – M.A. Intelligence Studies Mark Raduenzel – INTL647 Dec. 2014
  • 2. NSA'S ECHELON PROGRAM MARK RADUENZEL – INTL647 DEC. 2014 1 Introduction The ECHELON program created by the National Security Agency (NSA) was first revealed in a New Statesman article on August 12, 1988 by British investigative reporter Duncan Campbell, a former employee at the United Kingdom’s main listening station at Menwith Hill (Dover 2014, 127). Even at that time, it was clear ECHELON was a mature system which may have already existed for at least a decade, if not longer. In 1996, Nicky Hager provided a more detailed description in his book, Secret Power: New Zealand’s Role in the International Spy Network, shining a spotlight on this highly classified and controversial system (Richelson 2000, 49). Both authors wrote in detail regarding ECHELON’s interception of telecommunications traffic all across the globe by the UKUSA (United States, Great Britain, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand) alliance. Political controversy soon followed, especially in Europe. According to Richelson, fear of monitoring by the government led to a January 1998 report for the European Parliament in which an Appraisal of Technologies of Political Control committee, claimed "within Europe, all e-mail, telephone, and fax communications are routinely intercepted by the United States National Security Agency, transferring all target information from the European mainland ... to Fort Meade in Maryland” (Richelson 2000, 47). This public suspicion of government surveillance continues to this day. But what exactly is ECHELON and what is it capable of? History The original design and specific capabilities of ECHELON are still classified, making research difficult but not impossible. We can surmise that ECHELON originated in computerized processing and network technologies from the 1970s. SIGINT systems which were created and implemented during the Cold War tended to be geared towards intercepting diplomatic, espionage or military communications. ECHELON,
  • 3. NSA'S ECHELON PROGRAM MARK RADUENZEL – INTL647 DEC. 2014 2 on the other hand, was specifically designed for monitoring almost all electronic communications within both public and private sectors across the globe (Rudner 2001, 111). To make this capacity possible, the United States has placed a variety of geosynchronous, elliptically and low-earth satellites into orbit which catch electronic communications, missile telemetry and emanations from radar. Distributed ground stations in Britain, Germany, Australia and Colorado control the satellites and receive the signals intercepted from the satellites (Richelson 2000, 48). These satellites are maintained by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and work in concert with other telecommunication links which “can be used to siphon off messages travelling by satellite, microwave relay link or fibre optic cable, if they intercept such streams at a key node, and can work at a prodigious rate of more than 2 million intercepts per hour” (Wright 2005, 199). With this infrastructure in place, it is possible to intercept the vast majority of all electronic telecommunications including phone, fax and emails practically anywhere around the world. ECHELON is so extensive and intrusive that it does not discriminate which communications are siphoned up. Instead, its design allows the UKUSA Signals Intelligence alliance (made up of the United States, Great Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand) to use the system to intercept both military and non- military government communications and private sector organizations and businesses. The UKUSA nations designate which items are of intelligence value by providing selected keywords to monitor for (Richelson 2000, 47). As we shall see, this keyword identification functionality is fundamental to how the system operates. The ECHELON system links an array of large-scale computer processing capabilities which enables the various intercept sites to function as a single integrated SIGINT network. By sorting through vast flows of telecommunications traffic, the interception and processing technologies identify specifically targeted messaging. A messages is specifically identified as an item of interest through the use of ‘Dictionary’ computers. On each of these computers is stored a comprehensive database which contains designated
  • 4. NSA'S ECHELON PROGRAM MARK RADUENZEL – INTL647 DEC. 2014 3 targets, enumerated by explicit names, topics of interest, addresses, telephone numbers and other factors necessary for target identification. The Dictionary computers are only kept at NSA SIGINT interception facilities linked into the ECHELON system. (Rudner 2001, 111). At each interception facility, the Dictionary computer contains not only the parent organization’s designated keywords, but also a list of each cooperating SIGINT agency’s keywords. As the millions of intercepted messages are searched for a keyword in the Dictionary, any match is then flagged as an item of interest and shipped off to the computers of the requesting agency (Richelson 2000, 49). Since there is not a system of accountability regarding ECHELON, it is extremely difficult to discover the criteria used to determine who is or who is not a target. Certainly with the United States’ current focus on terrorism, we can assume that much of the information gathered is about potential terrorists. In addition to monitoring possible terrorists, Wright asserts “there is a lot of economic intelligence, notably intensive monitoring of all countries participating in the GATT negotiations” (Wright 2005, 113). Furthermore, intelligence-sharing arrangements increase the number of targets to include “transnational targets of common interest: terrorism, proliferation, and organized crime” (Wippl 2012, 11). The targets can change as often as national security priorities change, made easier by the flexible system design. Issues Does sifting through such a vast volume of collected data produce any valuable intelligence? While it may be tempting to think it would be impossible to find something useful, former NSA Director William Studeman noted in 1992 “one intelligence collection system alone can generate a million inputs per half hour; filters throw away all but 6500 inputs; only 1,000 inputs meet forwarding criteria; 10 inputs are normally selected by analysts and only one report is produced. These are routine statistics for a number of intelligence collection and analysis systems which collect technical intelligence" (Dover 2014, 128).
  • 5. NSA'S ECHELON PROGRAM MARK RADUENZEL – INTL647 DEC. 2014 4 Even from the early days of the program, NSA seems equipped to produce intelligence from a massive volume of data. However, with the explosive growth of global telecommunications since 1992 analyzing the collected data has become more challenging. Gill reports that twenty-two years later, in 2014, between 1 and 2 billion records a day are collected by the ECHELON system. The NSA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) claim the agency only touches “1.6% of internet traffic and that analysts ‘look at’ 0.00004%” (Gill 2014, 19). So, if we assume 2 billion records a day are collected by the system, we can extrapolate that 1.6% of collected messages amounts to 32 million records which are actually touched. However, out of the 32 million records, analysts will examine approximately 80,000, a seemingly overwhelming task. It would appear that vacuuming up such a vast quantity of information amounts to looking for a very small needle in a rather large haystack. Perhaps due to the perception of information overload combined with the capability of collecting mass amounts of data is why the ECHELON program came under fire for failing to prevent the terrorist attacks in New York on September 11, 2001. Wright’s contention is that this highly invasive intelligence program should only be able to justify its existence if it was able to detect and avert such atrocities (Wright 2005, 2014). In rebuttal to this assertion, however, Hughes-Wilson notes "the White House National Coordinator for Counter Terrorism, Richard Clarke, had issued a warning of impending attack to all agencies, and the National Security Agency (NSA) had collected clear intelligence from ECHELON (the international electronic eavesdropping network) that the White House, Pentagon and WTC were Al- Qa’ida targets" (Hughes-Wilson 2010, 67). This would indicate ECHELON had indeed done its part in warning policy makers of this event. ECHELON most likely paved the way for the proliferation of global SIGINT monitoring since now all governments, except only the poorest, can take part in comprehensive surveillance of electronic communications. The European Union has implemented its own signals intercept surveillance system
  • 6. NSA'S ECHELON PROGRAM MARK RADUENZEL – INTL647 DEC. 2014 5 named “Enfopol”. To give this surveillance system authority, the European Parliament passed the Legal Intercept of Telecommunications Resolution in 1995. One key component of the Resolution was to require satellite telephone operators to cooperate with European police forces in intercepting, recording, and translating any electronic communication. Noticeably missing is language limiting the collection to only communications within the European Union (Wettering 2001, 355). This places Enfopol in the same league as the ECHELON program. France and Germany are known to have their own SIGINT programs and intelligence sharing agreements on top of, and in addition to, the European Union and Enfopol (Wettering 2001, 356). The Federal Agency of Government Communications and Information (FAPSI) is Russia’s closest equivalent to the United States’ National Security Agency. In addition to FAPSI, Russia’s external intelligence service (SVR), internal security service (FSB) and the military intelligence service (GRU) all intercept and monitor electronic communications (Wettering 2001, 356). Keenan claims the Soviet Union also had a network similar to ECHELON, named “Dozor” (Keenan 2005, 42f). Most likely, Dozor is still active and operates under the auspices of the FAPSI today. Not to be outdone, the Third (Technical) Department of the People’s Liberation Army General Staff operates China’s own signal intercept program. The Third Department maintains satellite communication stations which intercept messages from Russian, as well as American, satellites. China’s Ministry of Public Security (the police force) also actively monitors telecommunications (Wettering 2001, 356). This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to global electronic surveillance systems, especially considering that Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand all take part in the ECHELON system. Even small countries like Myanmar and Thailand have a SIGINT system which monitors e-mail and phone calls (Wettering 2001, 353). In fact, it is increasingly harder to find a government which does not have the capability to monitor telecommunications.
  • 7. NSA'S ECHELON PROGRAM MARK RADUENZEL – INTL647 DEC. 2014 6 Any discussion of ECHELON’s impact on SIGINT operations today must include the recent revelations of PRISM by Edward Snowden in June 2013. Although the PRISM program allegedly only collects metadata which may be analyzed for targets which require closer scrutiny, the controversy regarding the program is reminiscent of ECHELON (Dover 2014, 128). In what may have been the impetus for PRISM, Müller informs us President George Bush “admitted that he had ordered the National Security Agency (NSA), in the wake of the 11 September attacks, to ‘listen in’ on communications between the USA and abroad” ostensibly to find and track terrorists (Müller 2009, 529). It is not difficult to see how, due to its similar capabilities, ECHELON was most likely a precursor to the PRISM program. The many examples of electronic surveillance by governments around the world have given rise to privacy concerns amongst the general public and even paranoia in some cases. For example, “Josef Tarkowski, former head of German counter-espionage, told the press he avoids using the phone because he knows every word is listened to” by ECHELON monitoring sites (Wettering 2001, 353). This claim may be dubious because of ECHELON’S dictionary design, but it does serve to show how ECHELON has increased paranoia even in the highest levels of government. Even though much of the data collected by ECHELON is not considered private and therefore is not legally protected, the public remains concerned about being so closely monitored by the government. Krapp notes that activists have gone so far as to coordinate a “Jam Echelon Day”, attempting to disrupt surveillance while alerting the public to its presence by intentionally sending tens of thousands of communications with the word “terrorist” in the message (Krapp 2005, 72). It may be amusing to note the keyword list is highly classified, so there is no way to know if the word “terrorist” is in the list. Since terrorists most likely do not refer to themselves as such in communications, “jihad” may have been a better word to use in order to produce the desired result of jamming the system. At any rate, until such indiscriminate monitoring is stopped, the public will remain concerned about the lack of privacy.
  • 8. NSA'S ECHELON PROGRAM MARK RADUENZEL – INTL647 DEC. 2014 7 Conclusion It is believed that ECHELON originated in the computerized processing and network technologies from the 1970s; however, because the program is still classified it is impossible to know for sure. But we do know that with a constellation of satellites and an array of listening stations, ECHELON is able to collect electronic communications all across the globe by examining the messages for specific keywords. These computer processing capabilities function as a single SIGINT collection and processing network. Given the massive volume of telecommunications traffic, only a mere fraction is able to be analyzed and processed. While it has been implied that ECHELON failed to prevent the terrorist attacks in New York on 9/11, there are conflicting reports which show ECHELON did, in fact, provide some warning as to the attacks. The implementation of ECHELON is most likely directly responsible for the proliferation of global SIGINT monitoring of all nations big and small. The European Union has implemented a signals intercept surveillance system as well as France, Germany, Russia, China and even smaller countries like Myanmar and Thailand. ECHELON is also most likely a precursor to the PRISM program which was revealed by Edward Snowden in 2013. Debate continues to this day as to whether this indiscriminate data collection is legal and the general public still remains concerned by the invasion of privacy these systems represent. It should be noted that avoiding use of specific keywords and using coded words to communicate may be an effective means of circumventing surveillance by systems similar to ECHELON. Encrypted communication is another facet which will make monitoring by ECHELON more difficult to achieve. Given the proliferation of these types of systems by governments around the world, it is apparent that global electronic surveillance systems such as ECHELON are not going away any time soon. The general public will either have to rise up against indiscriminate monitoring, or accept the loss of their privacy.
  • 9. NSA'S ECHELON PROGRAM MARK RADUENZEL – INTL647 DEC. 2014 8 References Dover, Robert. 2014. The World's Second Oldest Profession: The Transatlantic Spying Scandal and its Aftermath. The International Spectator: Italian Journal of International Affairs 49, no. 2:117-133. Gill, Peter. 2014. Should the Intelligence Agencies 'Show More Leg' or Have They Just Been Stripped Naked? Information & Security: An International Journal vol. 30:11-28. Hughes-Wilson, John. 2010. New Intelligence Blunders? The RUSI Journal 155, no. 1:64-71. Keenan, Kevin M. 2005. Invasion of privacy: a reference handbook. ABC-CLIO: Santa Barbara. Müller, Vincent C. 2009. Would you mind being watched by machines? Privacy concerns in data mining. AI & Society 23, no. 4:529-544. Richelson, Jeffrey. 2000. Desperately seeking signals. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 56, no. 2: 47-51. Rudner, Martin. 2001. Canada's Communications Security Establishment from Cold War to Globalization. Intelligence and National Security 16, no. 1: 97-128. Wettering, Frederick L. 2001. The Internet and the Spy Business. International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 14, no. 3:342-365. Wippl, Joseph W. 2012. Intelligence Exchange through InterIntel. International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 25, no. 1:1-18. Wright, Steve. 2005. The ECHELON Trail: An Illegal Vision. Surveillance & Society 3, no. 2/3: 198-215.