Know Your History: What is Project #ECHELON?


Q – What is Project ECHELON?

ECHELON is the term popularly used for an automated global interception
and relay system operated by the intelligence agencies in five nations:
the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand
(it is believed that ECHELON is the code name for the portion of the
system that intercepts satellite-based communications

While the United
States National Security Agency (NSA) takes the lead, ECHELON works
in conjunction with other intelligence agencies, including the Australian
Defence Signals Directorate (DSD). It is believed that ECHELON also
works with Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and
the agencies of other allies of the United States
, pursuant to various
treaties. (1)

These countries coordinate their activities pursuant to the UKUSA agreement,
which dates back to 1947. The original ECHELON dates back to 1971. However,
its capabilities and priorities have expanded greatly since its formation.

According to reports, it is capable of intercepting and processing many
types of transmissions, throughout the globe. In fact, it has been suggested
that ECHELON may intercept as many as 3 billion communications everyday,
including phone calls, e-mail messages, Internet downloads, satellite
transmissions, and so on.
(2) The ECHELON system gathers
all of these transmissions indiscriminately, then distills the information
that is most heavily desired through artificial intelligence programs.
Some sources have claimed that ECHELON sifts through an estimated 90
percent of all traffic that flows through the Internet.

Is ‘The Five Eyes Alliance’ Conspiring to Spy on You?

However, the exact capabilities and goals of ECHELON remain unclear.
For example, it is unknown whether ECHELON actually targets domestic
communications. Also, it is apparently very difficult for ECHELON to
intercept certain types of transmissions, particularly fiber communications.

Q – How does ECHELON work?

ECHELON apparently collects data in several ways. Reports suggest it
has massive ground based radio antennae to intercept satellite transmissions.
In addition, some sites reputedly are tasked with tapping surface traffic.
These antennae reportedly are in the United States, Italy, England,
Turkey, New Zealand, Canada, Australia, and several other places. (4)

Similarly, it is believed that ECHELON uses numerous satellites to
catch “spillover” data from transmissions between cities. These satellites
then beam the information down to processing centers on the ground.
The main centers are in the United States (near Denver), England (Menwith Hill), Australia, and Germany. (5)

According to various sources, ECHELON also routinely intercepts Internet
The organization allegedly has installed numerous “sniffer”
devices. These “sniffers” collect information from data packets as they
traverse the Internet via several key junctions. It also uses search
software to scan for web sites that may be of interest.

Furthermore, it is believed that ECHELON has even used special underwater
devices which tap into cables that carry phone calls across the seas.

According to published reports, American divers were able to install
surveillance devices on to the underwater cables. One of these taps
was discovered in 1982, but other devices apparently continued to function
undetected. (7)

It is not known at this point whether ECHELON has been able to tap fiber
optic phone cables.

Finally, if the aforementioned methods fail to garner the desired information,
there is another alternative. Apparently, the nations that are involved
with ECHELON also train special agents to install a variety of special
data collection devices.
One of these devices is reputed to be an information
processing kit that is the size of a suitcase. Another such item is
a sophisticated radio receiver that is as small as a credit card. (8)

After capturing this raw data, ECHELON sifts through them using DICTIONARY.
DICTIONARY is actually a special system of computers which finds pertinent
information by searching for key words, addresses, etc. These search
programs help pare down the voluminous quantity of transmissions which
pass through the ECHELON network every day. These programs also seem
to enable users to focus on any specific subject upon which information
is desired.

Q – If ECHELON is so powerful, why haven’t I heard about it before?

The United States government has gone to extreme lengths to keep ECHELON
a secret. To this day, the U.S. government refuses to admit that ECHELON
even exists.
We know it exists because both the governments of Australia
(through its Defence Signals Directorate) and New Zealand have admitted to this fact. (10) However, even with this revelation, US officials have refused
to comment. 

This “wall of silence” is beginning to erode. The first report on ECHELON
was published in 1988. (11) In addition, besides the revelations from Australia, the Scientific
and Technical Options Assessment program office (STOA) of the European
Parliament commissioned two reports which describe ECHELON’s activities.
These reports unearthed a startling amount of evidence, which suggests
that Echelon’s powers may have been underestimated.
The first report,
entitled “An Appraisal of Technologies of Political Control,” suggested
that ECHELON primarily targeted civilians.

This report found that:

The ECHELON system forms part of the UKUSA system but unlike many
of the electronic spy systems developed during the cold war, ECHELON
is designed for primarily non-military targets: governments, organisations
and businesses in virtually every country. The ECHELON system works
by indiscriminately intercepting very large quantities of communications
and then siphoning out what is valuable using artificial intelligence
aids like Memex to find key words. Five nations share the results with
the US as the senior partner under the UKUSA agreement of 1947, Britain,
Canada, New Zealand and Australia are very much acting as subordinate
information servicers. 

Each of the five centres supply “dictionaries” to the other four
of keywords, phrases, people and places to “tag” and the tagged intercept
is forwarded straight to the requesting country.

Whilst there is much
information gathered about potential terrorists, there is a lot of economic
intelligence, notably intensive monitoring of all the countries participating
in the GATT negotiations.

But Hager found that by far the main priorities
of this system continued to be military and political intelligence applicable
to their wider interests. Hager quotes from a “highly placed intelligence
operatives” who spoke to the Observer in London. “We feel we
can no longer remain silent regarding that which we regard to be gross
malpractice and negligence within the establishment in which we operate.”

They gave as examples. GCHQ interception of three charities, including
Amnesty International and Christian Aid. “At any time GCHQ is able to
home in on their communications for a routine target request,”
the GCHQ
source said. In the case of phone taps the procedure is known as Mantis.
With telexes its called Mayfly. By keying in a code relating to third
world aid, the source was able to demonstrate telex “fixes” on the three
organisations. With no system of accountability, it is difficult to
discover what criteria determine who is not a target. (12)


A more recent report, known as Interception Capabilities 2000,
describes ECHELON capabilities in even more elaborate detail. (13) The release of the report sparked accusations from the French
government that the United States was using ECHELON to give American
companies an advantage over rival firms. (14) In response,
R. James Woolsey, the former head of the US Central Intelligence Agency
(CIA), charged that the French government was using bribes to get lucrative
deals around the world, and that US surveillance networks were used
simply to level the playing field. (15) However, experts
have pointed out that Woolsey missed several key points. For example,
Woolsey neglected to mention alleged instances of economic espionage
(cited in Intelligence Capabilities 2000) that did not involve
bribery. Furthermore, many observers expressed alarm with Woolsey’s
apparent assertion that isolated incidents of bribery could justify
the wholesale interception of the world’s communications. (16)

The European Parliament formed a temporary Committee of Enquiry to investigate ECHELON abuses. (17) In May 2001, members
of this committee visited the United States in an attempt to discover
more details about ECHELON. However, officials from both the NSA and
the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) canceled meetings that they
had previously scheduled with the European panel.
The committee’s chairman,
Carlos Coelho, said that his group was “very disappointed” with the
apparent rebuffs; in protest, the Parliamentary representatives returned
home a day early. (18)

Afterwards, the committee published a report stating that ECHELON does
indeed exist and that individuals should strongly consider encrypting
their emails and other Internet messages.

the panel was unable to confirm suspicions that ECHELON is used to conduct
industrial espionage, due to a lack of evidence. (20)
Ironically, the report also mentioned the idea that European government
agents should be allowed greater powers to decrypt electronic communications,
which was criticized by some observers (including several members of
the committee) as giving further support to Europe’s own ECHELON-type
(21) The European Parliament approved the
report, but despite the apparent need for further investigation, the
committee was disbanded. (22)

Nevertheless, the European
Commission plans to draft a “roadmap” for data protection
that will address many of the concerns aired by the EP panel. (23)

Meanwhile, after years of denying the existence of ECHELON, the Dutch government issued a letter that stated: “Although the Dutch government
does not have official confirmation of the existence of Echelon by the
governments related to this system, it thinks it is plausible this network
exists. The government believes not only the governments associated
with Echelon are able to intercept communication systems, but that it
is an activity of the investigative authorities and intelligence services
of many countries with governments of different political signature.”
(24) These revelations worried Dutch legislators,
who had convened a special hearing on the subject. During the hearing,
several experts argued that there must be tougher oversight of government
surveillance activities. There was also considerable criticism of Dutch
government efforts to protect individual privacy, particularly the fact
that no information had been made available relating to Dutch intelligence
service’s investigation of possible ECHELON abuses.(25)

In addition, an Italian government official has begun to investigate
Echelon’s intelligence-gathering efforts, based on the belief that the
organization may be spying on European citizens in violation of Italian
or international law. (26)

Events in the United States have also indicated that the
“wall of silence” might not last much longer. 

Exercising their
Constitutionally created
oversight authority, members of the House Select Committee on
started asking questions about the legal basis for NSA’s
ECHELON activities.
In particular, the Committee wanted to know if the
communications of
Americans were being intercepted and under what authority,
since US
law severely limits the ability of the intelligence agencies
to engage
in domestic surveillance. When asked about its legal
authority, NSA
invoked the attorney-client privilege and refused to disclose
the legal
standards by which ECHELON might have conducted its
activities. (27)

President Clinton then signed into law a funding bill which required
the NSA to report on the legal basis for ECHELON and similar activities.
(28) However, the subsequent report (entitled Legal Standards
for the Intelligence Community in Conducting Electronic Surveillance)
gave few details about Echelon’s operations and legality. (29)

However, during these proceedings, Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA), who has taken
the lead in Congressional efforts to ferret out the truth about ECHELON,
stated that he had arranged for the House Government Reform and Oversight
Committee to hold its own oversight hearings.(30)

Finally, the Electronic Privacy Information Center has sued the US
Government, hoping to obtain documents which would describe the legal
standards by which ECHELON operates.(31)

Q – What is being done with the information that ECHELON collects?

The original purpose of ECHELON was to protect national security. That
purpose continues today. For example, we know that ECHELON is gathering
information on North Korea. Sources from Australia’s DSD have disclosed
this much because Australian officials help operate the facilities there
which scan through transmissions, looking for pertinent material. (32) Similarly, the Spanish government has apparently signed a
deal with the United States to receive information collected using ECHELON.
The consummation of this agreement was confirmed by Spanish Foreign
Minister Josep Pique, who tried to justify this arrangement on security
grounds. (33)

However, national security is not Echelon’s only concern. Reports have
indicated that industrial espionage has become a part of Echelon’s activities.
While present information seems to suggest that only high-ranking government
officials have direct control over Echelon’s tasks, the information
that is gained may be passed along at the discretion of these very same
officials. As a result, much of this information has been given to American
companies, in apparent attempts to give these companies an edge over
their less knowledgeable counterparts. (34)

In addition, there are concerns that Echelon’s actions may be used
to stifle political dissent. Many of these concerns were voiced in a
report commissioned by the European Parliament. What is more, there
are no known safeguards to prevent such abuses of power. (35)

Q – Is there any evidence that ECHELON is doing anything improper
or illegal with the spying resources at its disposal?

ECHELON is a highly classified operation, which is conducted with little
or no oversight by national parliaments or courts. Most of what is known
comes from whistleblowers and classified documents. The simple truth
is that there is no way to know precisely what ECHELON is being used

But there is evidence, much of which is circumstantial, that ECHELON
(along with its British counterpart) has been engaged in significant
invasions of privacy. These alleged violations include secret surveillance
of political organizations, such as Amnesty International. (36) It has also been reported that ECHELON has engaged in industrial
espionage on various private companies such as Airbus Industries and
Panavia, then has passed along the information to their American competitors.
(37) It is unclear just how far Echelon’s activities have harmed
private individuals.

However, the most sensational revelation was that Diana, Princess of
Wales may have come under ECHELON surveillance before she died. As reported
in the Washington Post, the NSA admitted that they possessed files on
the Princess, partly composed of intercepted phone conversations. While
one official from the NSA claimed that the Princess was never a direct
target, this disclosure seems to indicates the intrusive, yet surreptitious
manner by which ECHELON operates. (38)

What is even more disquieting is that, if these allegations are proven
to be true, the NSA and its compatriot organizations may have circumvented
countless laws in numerous countries. Many nations have laws in place
to prevent such invasions of privacy. However, there are suspicions
that ECHELON has engaged in subterfuge to avoid these legal restrictions.
For example, it is rumored that nations would not use their own agents
to spy on their own citizens, but assign the task to agents from other
countries. (39) In addition, as mentioned earlier, it is unclear just what
legal standards ECHELON follows, if any actually exist. Thus, it is
difficult to say what could prevent ECHELON from abusing its remarkable

Q – Is everyone else doing what ECHELON does?

Maybe not everyone else, but there are plenty of other countries that
engage in the type of intelligence gathering that ECHELON performs.
These countries apparently include Russia, France, Israel, India, Pakistan
and many others. (40) Indeed, the excesses of these ECHELON-like operations are
rumored to be similar in form to their American equivalents, including
digging up information for private companies to give them a commercial

However, it is also known that ECHELON system is the largest of its
kind. What is more, its considerable powers are enhanced through the
efforts of America’s allies, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia,
and New Zealand. Other countries don’t have the resources to engage
in the massive garnering of information that the United States is carrying


1. Development of Surveillance Technology and Risk
of Abuse of Economic Information (An appraisal of technologies for political
control), Part 4/4: The state of the art in Communications Intelligence
(COMINT) of automated processing for intelligence purposes of intercepted
broadband multi-language leased or common carrier systems, and its applicability
to COMINT targeting and selection, including speech recognition,
Ch. 1, para. 5, PE 168.184 / Part 4/4 (April 1999). See Duncan Campbell,
Interception Capabilities 2000 (April 1999) (

2. Kevin Poulsen, Echelon Revealed, ZDTV (June
9, 1999).

3. Greg Lindsay, The Government Is Reading Your E-Mail,
TIME DIGITAL DAILY (June 24, 1999).

4. PE 168.184 / Part 4/4, supra note 1, Ch. 2,
para. 32-34, 45-46.

5. Id. Ch. 2, para. 42.
6. Id. Ch. 2, para. 60.
7. Id. Ch. 2, para. 50.
8. Id. Ch. 2, para. 62-63.
9. An Appraisal of Technologies for Political Control,
at 20, PE 166.499 (January 6, 1998). See Steve Wright, An Appraisal
of Technologies for Political Control (January 6, 1998) (

10.Letter from Martin Brady, Director, Defence Signals
Directorate, to Ross Coulhart, Reporter, Nine Network Australia 2 (Mar.
16, 1999) (on file with the author); see also Calls for inquiry into
spy bases, ONE NEWS New Zealand (Dec. 28, 1999).

11. Duncan Campbell, Somebody’s listening, NEW
STATESMAN, 12 August 1988, Cover, pages 10-12. See Duncan Campbell,
ECHELON: NSA’s Global Electronic Interception, (last visited
October 12, 1999) (

12. PE 166.499, supra note 9, at 19-20.
13. PE 168.184 / Part 4/4, supra note 1.
14. David Ruppe, Snooping on Friends?,
(US) (Feb. 25, 2000) (

15. R. James Woolsey, Why We Spy on Our Allies,
WALL ST. J., March 17, 2000. See also CRYPTOME, Ex-CIA Head: Why
We Spy on Our Allies (last visited April 11, 2000) (

16. Letter from Duncan Campbell to the Wall Street Journal
(March 20, 2000) (on file with the author). See also Kevin Poulsen,
Echelon Reporter answers Ex-CIA Chief, (March
23, 2000) (

17. Duncan Campbell, Flaw in Human Rights Uncovered,
HEISE TELEPOLIS, April 8, 2000. See also HEISE ONLINE, Flaw in
Human Rights Uncovered (April 8, 2000) (

18.Angus Roxburgh, EU investigators ‘snubbed’ in
US, BBC News, May 11, 2001 (

19.Report on the existence of a global system for
intercepting private and commercial communications (ECHELON interception
system), PE 305.391 (July 11, 2001) (available in PDF
or Word
format at

20. Id.; see also E-mail users warned over
spy network, BBC News, May 29, 2001 (

21. Steve Kettman, Echelon Furor Ends in a Whimper,
Wired News, July 3, 2001 (,1294,44984,00.html).

22. European Parliament resolution on the existence
of a global system for the interception of private and commercial communications
(ECHELON interception system) (2001/2098(INI)), A5-0264/2001, PE
305.391/DEF (Sept. 5, 2001) (available at;
Christiane Schulzki-Haddouti, Europa-Parlament verabsciedet Echelon-Bericht,
Heise Telepolis, Sept. 5, 2001 (available at;
Steve Kettman, Echelon Panel Calls It a Day, Wired News, June
21, 2001 (,1294,44721,00.html).

23. European Commission member Erkki Liikanen, Speech
regarding European Parliament motion for a resolution on the Echelon
interception system (Sept. 5, 2001) (transcript available at

24. Jelle van Buuren, Dutch Government Says Echelon
Exists, Heise Telepolis, Jan. 20, 2001 (available at

25. Jelle van Buuren, Hearing On Echelon In Dutch
Parliament, Heise Telepolis, Jan. 23, 2001 (available at

26. Nicholas Rufford, Spy Station F83, SUNDAY
TIMES (London), May 31, 1998. See Nicholas Rufford, Spy Station F83
(May 31, 1998) (

27. H. Rep. No. 106-130 (1999). See Intelligence
Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000, Additional Views of Chairman
Porter J. Goss (

28. Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000,
Pub. L. 106-120, Section 309, 113 Stat. 1605, 1613 (1999). See H.R.
1555 Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000 (Enrolled Bill
(Sent to President))

(2000) (

30. House Committee to Hold Privacy Hearings,
(August 16, 1999) (

OF NSA INTERCEPTION ACTIVITIES (1999). See also Electronic Privacy Information
Center, EPIC Sues for NSA Surveillance Memos (last visited December
17, 1999) (

32. Ross Coulhart, Echelon System: FAQs and website
links, (May 23, 1999).

33. Isambard Wilkinson, US wins Spain’s favour with
offer to share spy network material, Sydney Morning Herald, June
18, 2001 (

34. PE 168.184 / Part 4/4, supra note 1, Ch.
5, para. 101-103.

35. PE 166.499, supra note 9, at 20.
36. Id.
37. PE 168.184 / Part 4/4, supra note 1, Ch. 5, para.
101-102; Brian Dooks, EU vice-president to claim US site spies on
European business, YORKSHIRE POST, Jan. 30, 2002 (available at

38. Vernon Loeb, NSA Admits to Spying on Princess
Diana, WASHINGTON POST, December 12, 1998, at A13. See Vernon Loeb,
NSA Admits to Spying on Princess Diana, WASHINGTON POST, A13
(December 12, 1998) (

39. Ross Coulhart, Big Brother is listening,
(May 23, 1999).

40. PE 168.184 / Part 4/4, supra note 1, Ch.
1, para. 7.

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