Europeans Enraged Over
Echelon Orbital Surveillance
By Alex Canizares
Special to

WASHINGTON (States News Service) - Fearing that governments are misusing a global surveillance system to eavesdrop on millions of people, Europeans are protesting a massive Cold War security network known as Echelon.
The government-operated security system -- meant to target terrorists, drug-traffickers and money-launderers by intercepting communications between satellites and ground stations -- is now drawing protests by activist groups.
Next week, British privacy rights groups will protest at Menwith Hill in Yorkshire, England -- the world's largest spy base and headquarters of the Echelon project.
The groups' literature claims Menwith Hill will "play a key role in the revival of Star Wars" and that the U.S. "intends to dominate space for its own interests."
Shrouded in secrecy, Echelon is said to be able to scan millions of phone conversations, e-mails, faxes and pages a day, searching for particular words or phrases.
Although the network's bases are operated by governments in the United States, Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, the United States and Britain have come under a flurry of criticism recently that its agencies are sharing information with private companies seeking to do business overseas. The information presumably would give those companies a competitive advantage over competitors abroad.
The European Parliament, which held hearings on Echelon, is claiming that the United States and Britain already are spying on European companies and sharing corporate details with companies in their own countries.
British press reports allege that Echelon was being used to help Boeing and the Raytheon Corp. gain advantage over European competitors in foreign markets.
The frenzy reached a crescendo last week when British newspapers reported that both Britain and the United States have eavesdropped on the late Princess Diana, as well as Mark Thatcher, son of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
While none of the allegations have been proven, experts say the ability for ground-based stations to scan satellite communications for key words is very real.
"It's an immense effort in terms of interception involved, in terms of developing systems to sort through all this stuff," said Jeffrey Richelson, a senior fellow at the National Security Archives, a non-profit group that obtains declassified documents and publishes them.
By most accounts, Echelon doesn't operate its own satellites, but rather intercepts communication signals to and from satellites orbiting Earth and ground stations.
In the same way that more than one household can receive the same television signal, powerful satellite dishes can pick up voice and data signals merely by pointing at a particular satellite relaying those transmissions.
Powerful computers sift through the data, much like an internet search engine, looking for phrases, voices or key words such as "bomb" or "terrorist."
The concern over Echelon appears to be playing itself out more subtly in the United States. The American Civil Liberties Union launched a website last fall devoted to tracking Echelon and looking for abuses.
While the claims are so far unfounded, said Steven Aftergood, director of a project on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, the government clearly needs to come clean, at least partially, on how Echelon is being used.
"At the bottom of all this is a question of oversight," Aftergood said. "The NSA (National Security Agency) has extraordinary powers of surveillance and it is vital that those powers be used exclusively for authorized national security purposes. Congress could and should do a much better job of conducting at least part of its oversight activities in public."

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