US Groups Slowly Waking
Global Spy Network
By Patrick Riley
Fox News
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 time."
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 surveillance laws.
"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 to be.
"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."