This page considers the ECHELON intelligence network.
It covers -
- what is Echelon and why is it of interest?
- from postal surveillance to UKUSA in the Cold War
- the shape of Echelon
matrix - Echelon as a focus of anxieties about the
New World Order of pervasive surveillance and control
- works about the network, technical challenges, political
frameworks and fear
It is complemented by a note on the Wassenaar
Arrangement, an international agreement that restricts high-level
cryptographic tools and products.
ECHELON is of interest as -
that leverages the global information infrastructure (GII),
with governments sifting large volumes of voice and data
cultural phenomenon, a focus of anxieties
among fringe groups on the left and right
that poses privacy, jurisdictional
and other issues for people in Australia and other nations.
has been the subject of much speculation - and mystification
- along with exemplary academic research. Conclusions about
its operation, evolution and impact must necessarily be
ECHELON has been claimed as "the largest electronic
spy network in history". In essence it is an information
sharing mechanism that involves the United States, the United
Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. It encompasses
telecommunications, in particular satellite and microwave
traffic. Critics have characterised it as surveilling up
to 3 billion communications per day, including personal,
business and government voice calls, faxes, email,
SMS telephone calls,
faxes and other data transfers. Many of those communications
take place outside the borders of the ECHELON states; some
involve governments and nationals of friendly states.
Information is electronically sifted, using different categories
(such as the recipient or keywords), with some messages
undergoing detailed analysis. It is likely that some commercially-sensitive
information is forwarded from national security agencies
to policymakers and to contacts in leading corporations,
for example to assist in trade negotiations.
As the following page notes, the effectiveness of ECHELON
is unknown: there are few benchmarks for determining its
effectiveness or comparing costs. As an essentially secret
activity it has proved resistant to scrutiny by legislatures.
It is likely to increase in scope and pervasiveness as policymakers
rely on ICT as a silver bullet to solve intractable political
and military problems.
Contrary to fin de siecle that 'gentlemen do not read each
others mail, governments have traditionally surveilled public
and private communications. Broadly, confidence
in the 1844 statement that
When a man puts a letter into the post-office he confidently
believes ... the communications he makes to his family
and friends will not be read, either by Postmaster-General,
or penny postman, or Secretary of State, and that no human
being will venture to break a seal which ... has been
regarded as sacred as the door of his own private residence
Resource constraints meant that surveillance was often ad
hoc and narrowly targeted rather than systematic and pervasive,
with for example a concentration on
couriers (and even diplomatic missions)
and telephone traffic, including messages by financiers,
industrialists and political activists
to/from such figures
emergence of radio saw increasing emphasis on what is now
tagged as signals intelligence (sigint), with different
nations expending significant sums on monitoring military
radio traffic and on encryption/decryption. One of the drivers
for the evolution of electronic computing, from the time
of Alan Turing to our
own era, has been use of IT to identify patterns - isolate
particular messages or anomalies - and to break codes through
brute force and through algorithms on a scale and consistency
that is difficult to achieve with people. That is an example
of what Noah Kennedy described as the 'industrialisation
of intelligence', with data analysis by security services
having some influence in large-scale use of IT for financial
predictions (notably stock exchanges) and complex systems
such as economics.
During the Cold War the 'English-speaking alliance' of Canada,
the US, New Zealand, Australia and the UK worked together
in the collection of signals traffic - initially through
radio monitoring stations and later through satellite stations.
That activity reflected perceptions of joint interest and
geography: there were for example advantages in having monitoring
sites across the world in friendly locations.
Not all information was shared between those 'partners'
(or other states such as South Africa). It is clear from
official histories, parliamentary testimony and memoirs
that although much data was collected by the minor members
of 'UKUSA' they were provided with analysis of that data
by the US on a very selective basis. Individual members
- and nations such as France, Norway, Japan, Germany and
Israel - thus also maintained independent or complementary
surveillance and analysis programs.
Echelon should be seen as an incremental rather than revolutionary
development, building on existing institutional relationships,
skills and infrastructure.
Its existence was not admitted for many years and there
is still considerable uncertainty about
configuration and capacity of the network
by government intelligence watchdogs and by other entities
such as government privacy bodies
with the private sector organisations that own and manage
most of the GII
information is collected
that information is analysed, who sees the analysis and
in what form (eg 'raw' data or abstracts)
that 'national champions' such as major corporations are
selectively provided with commercially critical information
about competitors or about policy discussions in other
by US and European agencies indicate, unsurprisingly, that
in a 'borderless' digital environment data collection is
not restricted to 'enemies'. It instead, in principle, covers
all traffic that can be captured - including communications
by 'allies' and by citizens, despite formal constraints
in states such as the US on domestic surveillance.
It is complemented by 'social network' initiatives, such
as creation by the NSA in the US of a database covering
billions of calls within that nation (ie a record of when
and to which numbers calls were made and for how long, rather
than the content of those calls).
At its simplest we can conceptualise Echelon as three elements
literature about the network assumes that traffic is surveilled
through specialist facilities, spread across the globe,
that cover satellite, microwave, radio, mobile phone and
cable (eg international fibre-optic links). Some surveillance
may involve switches at key nodes (eg 'taps' in international
For convenience individual Echelon states appear to have
a broad responsibility for monitoring traffic in different
parts of the globe. Australia for example supposedly concentrates
on communications originating in Indonesia and Indochina;
the UK covers Europe, Russia west of the Urals and Africa.
In practice much of the surveillance appears to be undertaken
by US personnel operating from facilities in partner countries,
with nationals of those states sometimes being restricted
from all/part of a station. Much surveillance appears to
be overlapping, with the US covering Latin America, most
of Asia, Asiatic Russia and northern China.
Data exchange involves provision of surveilled information
to partners and receipt of decrypted information, whether
as abstracts, raw data or in an enriched format (eg information
that has been drawn from a range of sources).
Much concern has centred on data analysis aspects of Echelon
and other schemes such as the US 'Total Information Awareness'
program. It is assumed that traffic is fed through a series
of filters that centre on specific words, figures, phrases,
speech patterns (eg the voice recognition highlighted
in our discussion of biometrics), addresses and even images.
Communications would receive a weighting: traffic that emanates
from particular locations or addresses, or with content
that sets off an initial trigger, would be weighted to ensure
that it passes through a cascade of filters.
Reports about the operation of data analysis vary, with
claims that most occurs in real time conflicting with suggestions
that computational requirements are so large that much 'flagged'
traffic is simply stored for a future analysis that often
does not eventuate. That is one basis for calls by activists
in Western countries to overload traffic with 'noise' on
days of protest, a response discussed later in this note.
Another response, considered by governments in the EU and
elsewhere, is to rely on high level encryption for sensitive
communications, arguably on the basis that if/when decryption
occurs it will be too late for the information to be use.
As discussed in the following page, critics have commented
that data is not information: the human factor in interpreting
communications is often of paramount significance although
data matching is of assistance. Interpretation may be inhibited
by shortages of analysts with appropriate language skills
(eg Mandarin or Farsi) and backgrounds.
One contact in the Australian intelligence community joked
a few years ago that if Echelon didn't exist, the paranoid
would have to invent it.
Speculation about global data collection and analysis schemes
has been appropriated to form a heady - or merely ludicrous
brew for consumers of popular culture or conspiracy theory.
At their most credible such tales centre on claims that
government has the capacity to listen to all/most phone
calls. It is unclear whether government does so and whether
other surveillance in practice is more threatening.
At its most zany anxiety about Echelon posits the network
as a centrepiece of 'New World Order' fantasies, replete
with mandatory barcodes (or RFID
tags) for all humans, the famous little black helicopters
beloved by paranoids, global tracking of all electronic
payments (typically by 'the Illuminati', 'Bilderbergers'
or some other bugaboo, ensconced deep beneath the Swiss
Alps or godless Wall Street), and seamless mind control
through command of the New York Times and Melbourne
Age or subliminal messages on broadcast tv. If
only life was that simple.
Literature on intelligence agencies is highlighted elsewhere
on this site, eg here
Background is provided in The Ties that Bind - Intelligence
Cooperation between the UKUSA Countries (London: Allen
& Unwin 1985) by Desmond Ball & Jeffrey Richelson. For
a perspective on tensions between democracy and security
see Best Truth: Intelligence & Security in the Information
Age (New Haven: Yale Uni Press) by Bruce Berkowitz
& Allan Goodman
Other works of importance by Ball include A Suitable
Piece of Real Estate (Sydney: Hale & Iremonger 1980),
A Base for Debate: The US Satellite Station at Nurrungar
(St Leonards: Allen & Unwin 1987) and Pine Gap: Australia
& the US Geosynchronous Satellite Program (St Leonards:
Allen & Unwin 1988). The New Zealand end of the network
is discussed in Nicky Hagar's more impassioned Secret
Power: New Zealand's Role in the International Spy Network
(Nelson: Craig Potton 1996).
For the NSA see The Puzzle Palace: A Report on NSA, America's
Most Secret Agency (New York: Houghton Mifflin 1982)
by James Bamford and follow-up Body of Secrets: Anatomy
of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency (New York:
Doubleday 2001) and Chatter: Dispatches From the Secret
World of Global Eavesdropping (New York: Random 2005)
by Patrick Keefe. A perspective on challenges in pattern
identification is provided by Philip Mirowski's Machine
Dreams: Economics Becomes a Cyborg Science (Cambridge:
Cambridge Uni Press 2002) and works on encryption highlighted
Pointers to conspiracist literature - Pat Robertson's The
New World Order (Dallas: Word 1991) and Rule by
Secrecy: The Hidden History That Connects the Trilateral
Commission, the Freemasons, and the Great Pyramids
(New York: Harper 2001) by Jim Marrs are particularly amusing
- feature here.
Sites maintained by academic Echelon-watchers, advocacy
organisations and alfoil-beanie wearers (eg disinfo.com)
are highlighted in the following page of this note.