Echelon is being denied by the NSA, openly discussed by the European Parliament, featured on global TV, documented by paper and online press and a topic of much controversy. Unfortunately, Echelon’s existence and more importantly its purpose, remain obscured by a shroud of national and international treaties, amendments and national security guidelines which date back to the cold war, an era of espionage, communism, capitalism and the nuclear arms race.
While we normally don’t really participate in discussions outside our normal point of interest, which obviously is computer hardware and related topics, I felt the growing use of global communications and the spectacular growth of the Internet over the past few years and the implications this alleged Echelon network has for each and every user of any of these new means of communications needed some further investigation. Although I realize that this article will only skim the surface of the matter, the inquisitive reader will be able to find plenty of other dedicated websites and articles that are more in-depth.
Echelon is supposedly a worldwide intelligence network operated by NSA and its allies under the UKUSA agreement, which tracks, scrutinizes and documents email, Internet, phone, fax and other electronic traffic. It is, unlike many of the intelligence systems developed during the Cold War, primarily designed for non-military targets such as: governments, organizations, businesses, and individuals in virtually every country. It potentially affects every person communicating between and even within countries anywhere in the world.
One of the first references made to it dates back to the ‘70s, but conceivably it, or a similar intelligence network, has been up and running for much longer. For example, the US government has had computers capable of real time voice analysis for over twenty years, listening in on domestic but preferably foreign phone calls looking for keywords of interest. This simply makes Echelon a worldwide extension of this.
What Echelon does with the accumulated data is another matter. To quote the NSA:
‘As is the long-standing policy within the United States Intelligence Community, we must refrain from commenting on actual or alleged intelligence activities; therefore, we can neither confirm nor deny the existence of specific operations. However, we can tell you that NSA operates in strict accordance with U.S. laws and regulations in protecting the privacy rights of U.S. persons.’
Basically the NSA could do whatever they want as long as it is ‘in strict accordance with U.S. laws and regulations in protecting the privacy rights of U.S. persons.’ Not a word is being spoken about the NSA spying on foreigners or even better, having a foreign agency relay information on U.S. or other persons back to them.
Another quote by the NSA states:
‘Since the 1970's, NSA's activities have been strictly controlled by written procedures approved by the Attorney General and the Secretary of Defense, and vetted with the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The Fourth Amendment transcends whatever technology happens to be involved in a particular form of electronic surveillance.’
Whereas the Fourth Amendment is instituted to protect the citizen against unreasonable searches and seizures by the authorities, it would not necessarily outlaw the electronic gathering of raw data as long as no one looks at any part of it that he or she is not authorized to view. And this creates a loophole, which allows Echelon to be operated within the agency’s legal constraints.
But before I get into too much detail in the first few paragraphs lets take a closer look at what would motivate the NSA and the American government to actually create and operate such an intelligence network. To be able to add to the discussion instead of just floating another theory, I’ll be taking a look at Echelon’s origins and any military, political or economic reasons behind its existence, as well as its supposed workings.
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