Echelon, what’s that? The espionage story behind the name

Echelon will mean nothing to the ordinary, normal citizen. Only those who are closely connected with it would then perhaps not be surprised about what is behind it and that there could even be such a thing as Echelon. Echelon, is the name of a world-wide espionage network. It is operated by the GCHQ, the Government Communications Headquarters, under the leadership of the US and UK intelligence services. However, Australia, New Zealand and Canada also play a vital role in this operation.

Echelon in Misawa
Echelon in Misawa, Japan

How long it has been going on for, is somewhat vague. Its roots most certainly go back to the time of cooperation between the intelligence services of the US and Britain over 70 years ago,  just after the Second World War. That association was called UKUSA, and was then also joined by the above mentioned 3 states and it got the nickname Five Eyes. Over the course of time, intelligence services from eight other countries joined the forces. Their task has been and still is, to provide the interception technology and switching points in the form of, originally, antenna systems and, today, of satellites and monitoring stations on the ground.

This makes it possible to listen into the mobile telephone system, the internet data traffic going through the transceiver cables on the ocean floor, satellite and microwave communication systems. Echelon, as a programme, was created in the latter part of the 1960s as a way of keeping an eye on the Soviet bloc during the Cold War. It was formalised by 1971. However, as with the Internet which started out as DARPANET and then ARPANET, as it shed its military rainson d’etre, by the turn of the last century, Echelon had turned its interest to civil matters … its eyes now focused on such as business and private information. Big Brother was firmly in business.

Now, espionage is nothing new. Recently, espionage has only become somewhat simpler and has become more comprehensive since the world has developed and networked very technologically. And that makes it easier for Echelon to have its eyes and ears everywhere. So the difference is, whereas espionage (because it was harder to operate) used to concentrate on the more important types of knowledge such as military secrets, or important technologies, these days, can be, and is, carried out on…well, anyone, really.

Echelon CFS Leitrim
Echelon at Canadian Forces Station Leitrim, CA

Echelon can actually listen into all current information technology data lines available and evaluate gathered information on a huge scale. In its beginnings, Echelon’s efforts were directed toward the East, to the USSR and its allies. Today, it is said, Echelon is used against terrorism and drug smuggling. But it would be naive to believe that such a sophisticated and networked thing like Echelon would only be used for that.

Back in 1976 a certain Winslow Peck pointed to the espionage system and then again in 1988, following Lockheed employee Margaret Newsham‘s revelation to congress that the National Security Agency (NSA) was recording the telephone calls of a US senator, journalist Duncan Campbell was a key figure in the unveiling of Echelon. His article „Somebody’s listening“ published in the New Statesman on 12 August 1988, named Echelon as a programme, and discussed its information-gathering skullduggery.

In 1996, New Zealander Nicky Hager revealed the role that New Zealand played in Echelon. He also asserted that Echelon had by then moved from defensive to industrial espionage. Finally, the documents of Eduard Snowden really confirmed the always suspected extent of Echelon and its espionage activities. There is no reliable information on the exact scope and nature of the interception measures due to the secrecy on the part of the operators. The data are evaluated fully automatically in huge data centers.

In 2001, the European Parliament launched a huge investigation, as Echelon was also suspected of being used for economic espionage. What emerged was that Echelon was indeed used to spy on non-military targets indiscriminately.

Echelon in Menwith Hill, Yorkshire, UK
Echelon in Menwith Hill, Yorkshire, UK

Government agencies and companies around the world were also carefully monitored. The EU’s investigation confirmed the existence of Echelon finally. And, of course, the British intelligence service played a great role here. A station in Menwith Hill, Yorkshire is an important base, especially as an outpost for the American NSA.

Echelon in Germanys Bad Aibling
Echelon in Germanys Bad Aibling

But even in Germanys Bad Aibling, Echelon had its ears. So the EP’s final report recommended comprehensive measures to curb mass data monitoring. These included the recommendation that states use encryption to protect themselves from such mass surveillance, which seems, according to most reports, to rely, though not solely, on the interception of satellites. In the same year, the Guardian quoted American James Bamford’s fear that Echelon would become a kind of secret police, from which there would be no defence for the victim.
And, in spite of everything that had long been known, conspiracy theories were wiped out over and over again – there surely would not be, could not be such a worldwide automated monitoring system that could spy on anyone. In the meanwhile, the conspiracy fringe maintained that Echelon had spied on people as disparate as Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-Moon on one hand, and Diana, Princess of Wales on the other.

Between total denial in one camp and wild surmise in the other, opinion ranged widely. It was only in June 2013 that Edward Snowden’s published collection of information revealed what the NSA and its friends were really up to. The documents clearly show that Echelon exists, how it works and how it could work in the dark for so long. The documents prove that Echelon has collected and analysed everything indiscriminately, especially by tapping the huge global fiber-optic communications links. However, a large-scale test carried out by opponents to reveal this kind of espionage ended up quite sobering. Snowden’s records do not contain any hints that the NSA had already listened to the world anything like as much as it does today.

Some of the satellites from the “old” Echelon program were dismantled. I guess communication via satellites isn’t as important as undersea cables.

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