Tuesday, December 17, 2013


UPDATED NOVEMBER 17, 1998 BY DANIEL VERTON (dan_verton@fcw.com) AND L. SCOTT TILLETT (scott_tillett@fcw.com)

The European Union is considering launching a full-scale investigation into whether the National Security Agency is abusing its massive and highly advanced surveillance network to spy on government and private groups around the world.
NSA's Cold War-vintage global spying system, code-named Echelon, consists of a worldwide network of clandestine listening posts capable of intercepting electronic communications such as e-mail, telephone conversations, faxes, satellite transmissions, microwave links and fiber-optic communications traffic, according to a report commissioned by the Scientific and Technological Options Committee of the European Parliament, which is the legislative body of the European Union. A summary of the report, which briefly discussed Echelon, was published last month.
"All e-mail, telephone and fax communications are routinely intercepted by the [NSA], transferring all target information from the European mainland via the strategic hub of London, then by satellite to Fort Meade in Maryland via the crucial hub at Menwith Hill in the...[United Kingdom]," according the report, "An Appraisal of the Technologies of Political Control."

Menwith Hill's Silkworth computer uses voice recognition, optical character recognition and data information engines to process the collected electronic signals, and then it forwards the processed messages to NSA, said Patrick S. Poole, deputy director of the Center for Technology Policy at the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank specializing in privacy issues. "These programs and computers transcend state-of-the-art, [and] in many cases they are well into the future," Poole said.

Originally, the United States and the United Kingdom agreed to use the network to spy on the Soviet Union and communist states during the Cold War. But Echelon's mission in later years shifted to tracking terrorists and criminals and other nonmilitary organizations. Eavesdropping on nonmilitary groups has European lawmakers and privacy advocates worldwide concerned that NSA may be abusing its powers.
NSA and U.S. telecommunications companies declined to comment.
Simon Davies, director of Privacy International, a London-based civil liberties watchdog organization, said the original report was only the first of several stages in the investigation, and the European Parliament is planning to fund an independent study of Echelon in the coming months. "There's enough interest [throughout the EU] to warrant a full-scale specific investigation [of Echelon]," Davies said.

Despite what Davies described as "an extraordinary amount of effort being made to silence inquiring minds," the European Parliament and various privacy advocates also plan to form a "conference of whistle-blowers" by March 1999 in an effort to "force these agencies to the table and to account for themselves," Davies said.
Eduard McVeigh, a spokesman for the European Parliament in London, said the committee has not yet decided what action to take in light of the report. "I get the impression they are not likely to do anything with it until after the European elections next June," McVeigh said. Still, several members of parliament felt it was an urgent matter that requires further investigation, McVeigh said.

Knowledgeable observers of the right-to-privacy debate in the United States also said there appears to be a direct correlation between the U.S. government's push for public-key recovery legislation and project Echelon, according to Poole. "There are a lot of suspicions," Poole said.

Allen Thompson, a former CIA analyst and contributor to studies by the Federation of American Scientists, said there is a good chance Echelon will backfire in the form of stronger commercial encryption products, which, "if widely adopted, can really and truly shut down [communications intelligence]." According to Thompson, "NSA can't in any useful way break modern, properly operated crypto-systems, and it has no prospect of doing so. Hence, the government's opposition to strong encryption."
The privacy debate surrounding Echelon also has raised concerns in the United States, Poole said. "Apart from directing their ears toward terrorists and rogue states, Echelon also is being used for purposes well outside its original mission," he said. For example, Poole said, in the 1980s Echelon was used to intercept electronic communications of Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), civilian political groups in Europe, Amnesty International and Christian ministries.

"Our case is not that this capability [shouldn't exist], but that the Fourth Amendment is quite explicit in terms of the standards the government has to meet," Poole said.
An FBI spokesman confirmed that agency officials have met with their European law enforcement counterparts to help them sort through the issues of monitoring criminal communications in the digital age. In the United States, officials will apply a relatively new law, the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), to the challenge of monitoring digital communications -- when wiretaps are authorized via court-ordered warrants, the FBI spokesman said.

The FBI does not plan to share the technical specifications of digital eavesdropping with the Europeans. Rather, the FBI plans to share the broad functional requirements, he said. "We all have the need...to gain access to dial-number information and call content.... So those requirements have been shared with our law enforcement counterparts," he said. "The technical standard that's being developed is one that's being developed by the industry."

Observers, however, see CALEA requirements and standards as a potential piece of the Echelon puzzle. "This [Echelon project] overlaps CALEA," said Barry Steinhardt, president of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "This is an overarching project which is organized on a global scale that appears to be outside any rule of law."

Nicky Hager, the New Zealand-based author of "Secret Power: New Zealand's Role in the International Spy Network" and who has watched the development of the Echelon project, said that without detail-level oversight by Congress, "oversight is useless."

Members of Congress and Capitol Hill staff members familiar with Echelon could not be reached for comment. Poole said his organization is approaching the Echelon matter as a privacy or constitutional issue, not as an intelligence issue. Privacy advocates Reps. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Bob Barr (R-Ga.) are among those the Free Congress Foundation is briefing, Poole said.

However, how much attention the system will get on Capitol Hill is unclear. "If this were a story about people spying on the U.S. rather than the U.S. spying on people, then it would be a big story," Hager said.

"The existence of this program can no longer be dismissed as the raving of lunatics," Steinhardt said. "That's the problem with this issue. Up till now, it's been 'X-Files' stuff. 

Now you have credible news sources and a credible report to the EU. I don't think this can any longer be dismissed as paranoia."


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