Echelon: Considerations with International Communications Monitoring

opinion Essay
5051 words
5051 words

Echelon: Considerations with International Communications Monitoring


Since the invention of radio, intelligence-gathering organizations have been developing and using eavesdropping techniques to intercept and review wireless communications. Initially, these capabilities were solely used to spy on hostile nations, and particularly for military purposes. Human operators had to manually review each transmission, and cryptanalysts pored over military ciphers in an attempt to decode important messages. As wireless communication has become an integral part of commercial and individual existence, and potential threats to security are increasingly found in peacetime and on home ground, the scope of this intelligence gathering has likewise broadened. One of the most controversial eavesdropping systems in existence is a classified project known as ‘Echelon.’ Its use of computer hardware and software to filter communications from all over the world brings up many ethical issues related to the impact of computers on privacy.

Overview of Echelon

Most of the evidence for Echelon is circumstantial, though a few facts have been established. The participating organizations (notably the US Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency) have neither confirmed nor denied its existence. In lieu of a discussion of the ethical issues, a brief summary of the current knowledge follows.

How it Works

Echelon is the product of Cold War efforts to monitor wireless communications in the USSR. It traces its roots back to the clandestine UKUSA alliance, a communications intelligence agreement that dates back from around 1947. Member nations include the US, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. It is now known that the system has been in existence for at least 20 years.[1] In the past, high frequency radio listening posts were also used to listen to radio communications. Currently, the system is composed of a series of eavesdropping satellites, ground listening stations, and supercomputers that intercept and sift through telecommunications satellite broadcasts. These broadcasts include faxes, phone calls, and web traffic- especially those dispatched over long distances.[2] The term Echelon has never actually been mentioned by officials, but is believed to represent the computer system that manages the data gathered by the network.[3] The computers are used to store and analyze text data for key words, and to review telephone conversations for unique ‘voiceprints’ or the phone numbers of persons under surveillance.[4] This makes it possible to filter an enormous amount of traffic, since human analysts review only relevant messages. The US National Security Agency (NSA) is widely considered to be both the originator and head of the project, and likely owns and operates the major computer facilities for Echelon.

In this essay, the author

  • Explains that intelligence-gathering organizations have been developing and using eavesdropping techniques to intercept and review wireless communications.
  • Explains that most of the evidence for echelon is circumstantial, though a few facts have been established. the participating organizations have neither confirmed nor denied its existence.
  • Explains that echelon is the product of cold war efforts to monitor wireless communications in the ussr.
  • Explains that echelon was intended to intercept and analyze all manner of communications from east bloc countries. the system has been continually upgraded and expanded despite the disappearance of the original threat.
  • Opines that for further discussion, it is important to review relevant legislation regarding a system like echelon. since the greatest uproar regarding the secret system has come from europe, this discussion will focus on american and european union laws.
  • Explains that the european union has stringent privacy laws, most notable of which is the data protection directive (dpd).
  • Opines that echelon is a powerful tool in times of open conflict, and has been used to gather intelligence during the gulf war, kosovo conflict and the war in iraq.
  • Explains that terrorists finance their efforts at least in part through front companies, special interest organizations, and charities. using echelon to intercept business and political communications can be useful in cutting off this crucial terrorist resource.
  • Argues that the main arguments against echelon all relate to personal privacy and the related concept of civil liberty.
  • Asks ruth gavison if echelon violates the privacy of individuals, and how badly. eavesdropping on private conversations results in the system obtaining information about people.
  • Explains that filtering software is far from perfect, especially when the technology is limited to a simple keyword search, as echelon is purported to be.
  • Opines that echelon's use in the past, and current and future purpose are not supported from this perspective.
  • Opines that people would be better off with or without echelon. privacy is something people attribute value to, but people value it when they have nothing to hide.
  • Argues that corporate fraud, terror attacks, and crime have a negative impact on utility. echelon has shown its worth in preventing fraud and at least deterring acts of terror.
  • Opines that echelon's benefits are outweighed by the negative impact of surveillance on undeserving individuals. advances in the software used to filter results, additional oversight, and new interception technologies could expand without crossing this line.
  • Explains that echelon is justified from a natural rights perspective, and can be used to safeguard the lives and property of parties under its protection (people of the ukusa nations and possibly some allies).
  • Opines that echelon's use is ethically justifiable if the assurances by the organizations in charge are to be believed.
  • Opines that echelon is likely to change as technology improves and its mission profile changes, but at the present, it is a useful tool in the war against terror.
  • Cites the european parliament, directive 95/46/ec, section 2, article 7, 1995, data protection commission of ireland, 19 may 2004.
  • Cites ruth gavison's "privacy and the limits of law" computers, ethics & social values.
  • Opines that echelon is capable of conducting an unprecedented amount of domestic and corporate espionage.
  • Explains that the nsa and other intelligence organizations have never confirmed echelon's existence. however, there are documented instances where it was employed.
  • Explains that the privacy act of 1974 establishes guidelines for data storage and computer matching, including use by federal agencies, and the foreign intelligence surveillance act.
  • Opines that the european parliament has a very different perspective on personal privacy and privacy violations than the us government.
  • Argues that a government's duty to protect its people from foreign attacks is based on surveillance on civilians and non-combatant entities.
  • Analyzes whether echelon violates the natural right to privacy, to the extent that this right is granted.
  • Opines that echelon is a product of the cold war and is adaptable to current security situations.
  • Cites sara baase, a gift of fire, and patrick s. poole's echelon: america’s secret global surveillance network.
  • Cites cnn newsnet, robert windrem, the european parliament, draft report: temporary committee on the echelon interception system.
  • Explains the us government's united states code, n/a, cornell law school legal information institute, 16 may 2004.
  • Cites the european parliament's directive 95/46/ec, section 6, article 13, 1995, data protection commission of ireland, 19 may 2004, newsnet, high-tech spy satellites not targeting americans,
  • Cites james rachels and helen nissenbaum's computers, ethics & social values.
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