The Echelon intelligence network is supposedly operated by strategically positioning listening stations all over the world which capture all email, Internet, phone, fax and other electronic traffic and then process this information locally, looking for key words or phrases.
The system works by indiscriminately intercepting all forms of communication and using computers to identify and extract any communication of interest, whether voice, fax, email or any other electronic form, including encrypted messages, from the mass of uninteresting ones. For this purpose different listening stations are set up that cater to specific components of the international telecommunication networks. Some monitor communications satellites, others land-based communications networks, and others radio communications. The Echelon network combines the accumulated information as provided by all these facilities, providing the NSA and its allies under the UKUSA agreement with the ability to intercept a large proportion of the communications on the planet.
The computers at each listening station in the network automatically search through the millions of voice, fax, email, and any other electronic messages intercepted for ones containing pre-programmed keywords. Keywords include all the names, subjects, numbers, phrases, email addresses and so on that might be of interest. Every word of every message intercepted at each station gets automatically searched to determine whether it contains any of the keywords.
The computers in stations around the world are known, within the Echelon network, as the Echelon Dictionaries. A particular station's Dictionary computer contains not only its parent agency's chosen keywords, but also has keyword lists stored for other agencies. For example, the computer has separate search lists for the NSA, GCHQ, DSD, and CSE in addition to its own. Each agency decides its own categories according to its responsibilities for producing intelligence for their part of the network. For example, New Zealand’s GCSB would attend to the South Pacific and other communications in their region.
The search lists are organized into the same categories, referred to by four digit numbers. The agency then works out about 10 to 50 keywords for selection in each category. The keywords include such things as names of people, ships, organizations, country names, and subject names. They also include the known phone, telex and fax numbers and Internet addresses of any individuals, businesses, organizations, and government offices that are targets. These are generally written as part of the message text and so are easily recognized by the Dictionary computers.
Whenever the Dictionary encounters a message containing one of the agencies' keywords, it automatically selects it and sends it directly to the headquarters of the agency concerned. No one in the originating station screens, or even sees, the intelligence collected by the station for the foreign agencies. However, each of the stations' Dictionary computers has a codename to distinguish it from others in the network. These codenames are recorded at the beginning of every intercepted message, before it is transmitted around the Echelon network, allowing analysts to recognize at which station the interception occurred.
This system is very effective for controlling which agencies can get what from the global network because each agency only gets the intelligence out of the Echelon network which is intended for it. It does not have any access to intelligence directed to other agencies. Only the controlling agency, NSA, has full access to all information gathered.
The agencies also specify combinations of keywords to help sift out communications of interest. For example, they might search for diplomatic messages containing both the words ‘Cuba’ and ‘Castro,’ or messages containing the word ‘Cuba’ but not ‘consul’, to avoid the masses of routine consular communications. It is these sets of words and numbers and combinations thereof, under particular categories that get placed in the Dictionary computers.
The Dictionary computers are connected via highly encrypted communications that link back to computer databases in the five agency headquarters. This is where all the intercepted messages selected by the Dictionaries end up. Each morning intelligence analysts log on at their computer terminals and enter the Dictionary system. After keying in their security passwords, they reach a directory that lists the different categories of intercept available in the databases. Subsequently they select their subject categories, get a ‘search result’ showing how many messages have been caught in the Echelon network on those subjects, and then start working on screen after screen of intercepted faxes, e-mail messages, etc., and report on any messages worth further investigation.
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