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ECHELON is a "term associated with a global network of computers that automatically search through millions of intercepted messages for pre-programmed keywords or fax, telex and e-mail addresses. Every word of every message in the frequencies and channels selected at a station is automatically searched. The processors in the network are known as the ECHELON Dictionaries. ECHELON connects all these computers and allows the individual stations to function as distributed elements an integrated system. An ECHELON station's Dictionary contains not only its parent agency's chosen keywords, but also lists for each of the other four agencies in the UKUSA system [NSA, GCHQ, DSD, GCSB and CSE]." [1]

Fact Sheet

The following ECHELON FAQ was presented by EchelonWatch and administered by the American Civil Liberties Union along with the Free Congress Foundation, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Cyber-Rights and Cyber-Liberties (UK), and the Omega Foundation. This FAQ is mirrored here under US copyright law fair use principles.

Q - What is Project ECHELON?

ECHELON is the term popularly used for an automated global interception and relay system operated by the intelligence agencies in five nations: the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand (it is believed that ECHELON is the code name for the portion of the system that intercepts satellite-based communications). While the United States National Security Agency (NSA) takes the lead, ECHELON works in conjunction with other intelligence agencies, including the Australian Defence Signals Directorate (DSD). It is believed that ECHELON also works with Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and the agencies of other allies of the United States, pursuant to various treaties. (1)

These countries coordinate their activities pursuant to the UKUSA agreement, which dates back to 1947. The original ECHELON dates back to 1971. However, its capabilities and priorities have expanded greatly since its formation. According to reports, it is capable of intercepting and processing many types of transmissions, throughout the globe. In fact, it has been suggested that ECHELON may intercept as many as 3 billion communications everyday, including phone calls, e-mail messages, Internet downloads, satellite transmissions, and so on. (2) The ECHELON system gathers all of these transmissions indiscriminately, then distills the information that is most heavily desired through artificial intelligence programs. Some sources have claimed that ECHELON sifts through an estimated 90 percent of all traffic that flows through the Internet. (3)

However, the exact capabilities and goals of ECHELON remain unclear. For example, it is unknown whether ECHELON actually targets domestic communications. Also, it is apparently very difficult for ECHELON to intercept certain types of transmissions, particularly fiber communications.

Q - How does ECHELON work?

ECHELON apparently collects data in several ways. Reports suggest it has massive ground based radio antennae to intercept satellite transmissions. In addition, some sites reputedly are tasked with tapping surface traffic. These antennae reportedly are in the United States, Italy, England, Turkey, New Zealand, Canada, Australia, and several other places. (4)

Similarly, it is believed that ECHELON uses numerous satellites to catch "spillover" data from transmissions between cities. These satellites then beam the information down to processing centers on the ground. The main centers are in the United States (near Denver), England (Menwith Hill), Australia, and Germany. (5)

According to various sources, ECHELON also routinely intercepts Internet transmissions. The organization allegedly has installed numerous "sniffer" devices. These "sniffers" collect information from data packets as they traverse the Internet via several key junctions. It also uses search software to scan for web sites that may be of interest. (6)

Furthermore, it is believed that ECHELON has even used special underwater devices which tap into cables that carry phone calls across the seas. According to published reports, American divers were able to install surveillance devices on to the underwater cables. One of these taps was discovered in 1982, but other devices apparently continued to function undetected. (7)

It is not known at this point whether ECHELON has been able to tap fiber optic phone cables.

Finally, if the aforementioned methods fail to garner the desired information, there is another alternative. Apparently, the nations that are involved with ECHELON also train special agents to install a variety of special data collection devices. One of these devices is reputed to be an information processing kit that is the size of a suitcase. Another such item is a sophisticated radio receiver that is as small as a credit card. (8)

After capturing this raw data, ECHELON sifts through them using DICTIONARY. DICTIONARY is actually a special system of computers which finds pertinent information by searching for key words, addresses, etc. These search programs help pare down the voluminous quantity of transmissions which pass through the ECHELON network every day. These programs also seem to enable users to focus on any specific subject upon which information is desired. (9)

Q - If ECHELON is so powerful, why haven't I heard about it before?

The United States government has gone to extreme lengths to keep ECHELON a secret. To this day, the U.S. government refuses to admit that ECHELON even exists. We know it exists because both the governments of Australia (through its Defence Signals Directorate) and New Zealand have admitted to this fact. (10) However, even with this revelation, US officials have refused to comment.

This "wall of silence" is beginning to erode. The first report on ECHELON was published in 1988. (11) In addition, besides the revelations from Australia, the Scientific and Technical Options Assessment program office (STOA) of the European Parliament commissioned two reports which describe ECHELON's activities. These reports unearthed a startling amount of evidence, which suggests that Echelon's powers may have been underestimated. The first report, entitled "An Appraisal of Technologies of Political Control," suggested that ECHELON primarily targeted civilians.

This report found that:

"The ECHELON system forms part of the UKUSA system but unlike many of the electronic spy systems developed during the cold war, ECHELON is designed for primarily non-military targets: governments, organisations and businesses in virtually every country. The ECHELON system works by indiscriminately intercepting very large quantities of communications and then siphoning out what is valuable using artificial intelligence aids like Memex to find key words. Five nations share the results with the US as the senior partner under the UKUSA agreement of 1948, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and Australia are very much acting as subordinate information servicers.

"Each of the five centres supply "dictionaries" to the other four of keywords, phrases, people and places to "tag" and the tagged intercept is forwarded straight to the requesting country. Whilst there is much information gathered about potential terrorists, there is a lot of economic intelligence, notably intensive monitoring of all the countries participating in the GATT negotiations. But Hager found that by far the main priorities of this system continued to be military and political intelligence applicable to their wider interests. Hager quotes from a "highly placed intelligence operatives" who spoke to the Observer in London. "We feel we can no longer remain silent regarding that which we regard to be gross malpractice and negligence within the establishment in which we operate." They gave as examples. GCHQ interception of three charities, including Amnesty International and Christian Aid. "At any time GCHQ is able to home in on their communications for a routine target request," the GCHQ source said. In the case of phone taps the procedure is known as Mantis. With telexes its called Mayfly. By keying in a code relating to third world aid, the source was able to demonstrate telex "fixes" on the three organisations. With no system of accountability, it is difficult to discover what criteria determine who is not a target." (12)

A more recent report, known as Interception Capabilities 2000, describes ECHELON capabilities in even more elaborate detail. (13) The release of the report sparked accusations from the French government that the United States was using ECHELON to give American companies an advantage over rival firms. (14) In response, R. James Woolsey, the former head of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), charged that the French government was using bribes to get lucrative deals around the world, and that US surveillance networks were used simply to level the playing field. (15) However, experts have pointed out that Woolsey missed several key points. For example, Woolsey neglected to mention alleged instances of economic espionage (cited in Intelligence Capabilities 2000) that did not involve bribery. Furthermore, many observers expressed alarm with Woolsey's apparent assertion that isolated incidents of bribery could justify the wholesale interception of the world's communications. (16)

The European Parliament formed a temporary Committee of Enquiry to investigate ECHELON abuses. (17) In May 2001, members of this committee visited the United States in an attempt to discover more details about ECHELON. However, officials from both the NSA and the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) canceled meetings that they had previously scheduled with the European panel. The committee's chairman, Carlos Coelho, said that his group was "very disappointed" with the apparent rebuffs; in protest, the Parliamentary representatives returned home a day early. (18)

Afterwards, the committee published a report stating that ECHELON does indeed exist and that individuals should strongly consider encrypting their emails and other Internet messages. (19) However, the panel was unable to confirm suspicions that ECHELON is used to conduct industrial espionage, due to a lack of evidence. (20) Ironically, the report also mentioned the idea that European government agents should be allowed greater powers to decrypt electronic communications, which was criticized by some observers (including several members of the committee) as giving further support to Europe's own ECHELON-type system. (21) The European Parliament approved the report, but despite the apparent need for further investigation, the committee was disbanded. (22) Nevertheless, the European Commission plans to draft a "roadmap" for data protection that will address many of the concerns aired by the EP panel. (23)

Meanwhile, after years of denying the existence of ECHELON, the Dutch government issued a letter that stated: "Although the Dutch government does not have official confirmation of the existence of Echelon by the governments related to this system, it thinks it is plausible this network exists. The government believes not only the governments associated with Echelon are able to intercept communication systems, but that it is an activity of the investigative authorities and intelligence services of many countries with governments of different political signature." (24) These revelations worried Dutch legislators, who had convened a special hearing on the subject. During the hearing, several experts argued that there must be tougher oversight of government surveillance activities. There was also considerable criticism of Dutch government efforts to protect individual privacy, particularly the fact that no information had been made available relating to Dutch intelligence service's investigation of possible ECHELON abuses.(25)

In addition, an Italian government official has begun to investigate Echelon's intelligence-gathering efforts, based on the belief that the organization may be spying on European citizens in violation of Italian or international law. (26)

Events in the United States have also indicated that the "wall of silence" might not last much longer. Exercising their Constitutionally created oversight authority, members of the House Select Committee on Intelligence started asking questions about the legal basis for NSA's ECHELON activities. In particular, the Committee wanted to know if the communications of Americans were being intercepted and under what authority, since US law severely limits the ability of the intelligence agencies to engage in domestic surveillance. When asked about its legal authority, NSA invoked the attorney-client privilege and refused to disclose the legal standards by which ECHELON might have conducted its activities. (27)

President Clinton then signed into law a funding bill which required the NSA to report on the legal basis for ECHELON and similar activities. (28) However, the subsequent report (entitled Legal Standards for the Intelligence Community in Conducting Electronic Surveillance) gave few details about Echelon's operations and legality. (29)

However, during these proceedings, Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA), who has taken the lead in Congressional efforts to ferret out the truth about ECHELON, stated that he had arranged for the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee to hold its own oversight hearings.(30)

Finally, the Electronic Privacy Information Center has sued the US Government, hoping to obtain documents which would describe the legal standards by which ECHELON operates.(31)

Q - What is being done with the information that ECHELON collects?

The original purpose of ECHELON was to protect national security. That purpose continues today. For example, we know that ECHELON is gathering information on North Korea. Sources from Australia's DSD have disclosed this much because Australian officials help operate the facilities there which scan through transmissions, looking for pertinent material. (32) Similarly, the Spanish government has apparently signed a deal with the United States to receive information collected using ECHELON. The consummation of this agreement was confirmed by Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique, who tried to justify this arrangement on security grounds. (33)

However, national security is not Echelon's only concern. Reports have indicated that industrial espionage has become a part of Echelon's activities. While present information seems to suggest that only high-ranking government officials have direct control over Echelon's tasks, the information that is gained may be passed along at the discretion of these very same officials. As a result, much of this information has been given to American companies, in apparent attempts to give these companies an edge over their less knowledgeable counterparts. (34)

In addition, there are concerns that Echelon's actions may be used to stifle political dissent. Many of these concerns were voiced in a report commissioned by the European Parliament. What is more, there are no known safeguards to prevent such abuses of power. (35)

Q - Is there any evidence that ECHELON is doing anything improper or illegal with the spying resources at its disposal?

ECHELON is a highly classified operation, which is conducted with little or no oversight by national parliaments or courts. Most of what is known comes from whistleblowers and classified documents. The simple truth is that there is no way to know precisely what ECHELON is being used for.

But there is evidence, much of which is circumstantial, that ECHELON (along with its British counterpart) has been engaged in significant invasions of privacy. These alleged violations include secret surveillance of political organizations, such as Amnesty International. (36) It has also been reported that ECHELON has engaged in industrial espionage on various private companies such as Airbus Industries and Panavia, then has passed along the information to their American competitors. (37) It is unclear just how far Echelon's activities have harmed private individuals.

However, the most sensational revelation was that Diana, Princess of Wales may have come under ECHELON surveillance before she died. As reported in the Washington Post, the NSA admitted that they possessed files on the Princess, partly composed of intercepted phone conversations. While one official from the NSA claimed that the Princess was never a direct target, this disclosure seems to indicates the intrusive, yet surreptitious manner by which ECHELON operates. (38)

What is even more disquieting is that, if these allegations are proven to be true, the NSA and its compatriot organizations may have circumvented countless laws in numerous countries. Many nations have laws in place to prevent such invasions of privacy. However, there are suspicions that ECHELON has engaged in subterfuge to avoid these legal restrictions. For example, it is rumored that nations would not use their own agents to spy on their own citizens, but assign the task to agents from other countries. (39) In addition, as mentioned earlier, it is unclear just what legal standards ECHELON follows, if any actually exist. Thus, it is difficult to say what could prevent ECHELON from abusing its remarkable capabilities.

Q - Is everyone else doing what ECHELON does?

Maybe not everyone else, but there are plenty of other countries that engage in the type of intelligence gathering that ECHELON performs. These countries apparently include Russia, France, Israel, India, Pakistan and many others. (40) Indeed, the excesses of these ECHELON-like operations are rumored to be similar in form to their American equivalents, including digging up information for private companies to give them a commercial advantage.

However, it is also known that ECHELON system is the largest of its kind. What is more, its considerable powers are enhanced through the efforts of America's allies, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Other countries don't have the resources to engage in the massive garnering of information that the United States is carrying out. [2]

Fact Sheet End Notes

  1. Development of Surveillance Technology and Risk of Abuse of Economic Information (An Appraisal of Technologies of Political Control), Part 4/4: The state of the art in Communications Intelligence (COMINT) of automated processing for intelligence purposes of intercepted broadband multi-language leased or common carrier systems, and its applicability to COMINT targeting and selection, including speech recognition, Ch. 1, para. 5, PE 168.184 / Part 4/4 (April 1999). See Duncan Campbell, Interception Capabilities 2000, April 1999.
  2. Kevin Poulsen, "Echelon Revealed," ZDTV, June 9, 1999.
  3. Greg Lindsay, "The Government Is Reading Your E-Mail," Time Digital Daily, June 24, 1999.
  4. PE 168.184 / Part 4/4, supra note 1, Ch. 2, para. 32-34, 45-46.
  5. Id. Ch. 2, para. 42.
  6. Id. Ch. 2, para. 60.
  7. Id. Ch. 2, para. 50.
  8. Id. Ch. 2, para. 62-63.
  9. An Appraisal of Technologies for Political Control, at 20, PE 166.499 (January 6, 1998). See Steve Wright, "An Appraisal of Technologies for Political Control," January 6, 1998.
  10. Letter from Martin Brady, Director, Defence Signals Directorate, to Ross Coulhart, Reporter, Nine Network Australia 2 (March 16, 1999) (on file with the author); see also "Calls for inquiry into spy bases," One News (New Zealand), December 28, 1999.
  11. Duncan Campbell, Somebody's listening, New Statesman, August 12, 1988 (Cover, pages 10-12). See Duncan Campbell, "ECHELON: NSA's Global Electronic Interception," (last visited October 12, 1999).
  12. PE 166.499, supra note 9, at 19-20.
  13. PE 168.184 / Part 4/4, supra note 1.
  14. David Ruppe, "Snooping on Friends?", (US), February 25, 2000.
  15. R. James Woolsey, "Why We Spy on Our Allies," Wall Street Journal, March 17, 2000 (last visited April 11, 2000).
  16. Letter from Duncan Campbell to the Wall Street Journal (March 20, 2000) (on file with the author). See also Kevin Poulsen, "Echelon Reporter answers Ex-CIA Chief,", March 23, 2000.
  17. Duncan Campbell, "Flaw in Human Rights Uncovered," Heise Telepolis, April 8, 2000.
  18. Angus Roxburgh, "EU investigators 'snubbed' in US," BBC News, May 11, 2001.
  19. Report on the existence of a global system for intercepting private and commercial communications (ECHELON interception system), PE 305.391 (July 11, 2001) (available in PDF or Word format at
  20. Id.; see also E-mail users warned over spy network," BBC News, May 29, 2001.
  21. Steve Kettman, "Echelon Furor Ends in a Whimper," Wired News, July 3, 2001.
  22. European Parliament resolution on the existence of a global system for the interception of private and commercial communications (ECHELON interception system) (2001/2098(INI)), A5-0264/2001, PE 305.391/DEF (September 5, 2001) (available at; Christiane Schulzki-Haddouti, Europa-Parlament verabsciedet Echelon-Bericht, Heise Telepolis, September 5, 2001 (available at; Steve Kettman, "Echelon Panel Calls It a Day," Wired News, June 21, 2001.
  23. Transcript: European Commission member Erkki Liikanen, Speech regarding European Parliament motion for a resolution on the Echelon interception system, September 5, 2001.
  24. Jelle van Buuren, "Dutch Government Says Echelon Exists," Heise Telepolis, January 20, 2001.
  25. Jelle van Buuren, Hearing On Echelon In Dutch Parliament, Heise Telepolis, January 23, 2001.
  26. Nicholas Rufford, "Spy Station F83," Sunday Times (London), May 31, 1998.
  27. H. Rep. No. 106-130 (1999). See Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000, Additional Views of Chairman Porter J. Goss.
  28. Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000, Pub. L. 106-120, Section 309, 113 Stat. 1605, 1613 (1999). See H.R. 1555 Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000 (Enrolled Bill (Sent to President))
  29. United States National Security Agency, Legal Standards for the Intelligence Community in Conducting Electronic Surveillance (2000), Federation of American Scientists.
  30. House Committee to Hold Privacy Hearings, August 16, 1999.
  31. Electronic Privacy Information Center Press Release: Lawsuit Seeks Memos on Surveillance of Americans; EPIC Launches Study of NSA Interception Activities (1999) See also Electronic Privacy Information Center, EPIC Sues for NSA Surveillance Memos (last visited December 17, 1999).
  32. Ross Coulhart, Echelon System: FAQs and website links, May 23, 1999.
  33. Isambard Wilkinson, "US wins Spain's favour with offer to share spy network material," Sydney Morning Herald, June 18, 2001.
  34. PE 168.184 / Part 4/4, supra note 1, Ch. 5, para. 101-103.
  35. PE 166.499, supra note 9, at 20.
  36. Id.
  37. PE 168.184 / Part 4/4, supra note 1, Ch. 5, para. 101-102; Brian Dooks, "EU vice-president to claim US site spies on European business," Yorkshire Post, January 30, 2002.
  38. Vernon Loeb, "NSA Admits to Spying on Princess Diana," Washington Post, December 12, 1998 (A13).
  39. Ross Coulhart, "Big Brother is listening," May 23, 1999.
  40. PE 168.184 / Part 4/4, supra note 1, Ch. 1, para. 7.

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