The ECHELON has become a popular word used in media and popular culture to describe an alleged secret global surveillance network developed and operated by the American government along with the signatories of the UKUSA Agreement—a multilateral agreement for cooperation in signals intelligence between five countries, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Numerous claims mentioned that the program originally emerged in the late 1960s to monitor the military and diplomatic communications of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc allies during the Cold War. Through developments in computer and communication technologies, the program evolved into a sophisticated global surveillance network.
Central to the purported capabilities of ECHELON is the interception of transmissions transpiring in several communication networks to include phone systems and cellular networks, the Internet, and other types of electronic communication.
Early public disclosures about ECHELON
Despite being a classified program involving powerful countries and their sophisticated intelligence organisations and networks, there are several claims and evidences confirming the existence of the ECHELON surveillance network.
Investigative journalist Duncan Campbell has been largely credited for the first public disclosure of a program that revolved around signals intelligence. In his 1988 article published by the New Statesman, Campbell documented the emerging controversy about an alleged surveillance activities conducted by the American government. One of the personalities that emerged during then was Margaret Newsham, a former employee at aerospace company Lockheed Corporation.
Newsman revealed to the U.S. Congress that the U.S. National Security Agency was intercepting and recording the telephone calls of Republican senator Strom Thurmond. Further investigations carried out by the Congress concluded that there was indeed a system designed to target American political figures.
The investigative report of Campbell actually centred on discussing and describing Project P415. Based on confidential information forwarded to the U.S. Congress, the project involved the development of a surveillance network that would give government agencies the capability to monitor and analyse civilian communications by 21st century.
Of course, the surveillance network already existed before the 1988 expositions. Campbell mentioned that Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK, and US were already developing a global eavesdropping network immediately after the Second World War, particular after signing the UKUSA Agreement in 1946.
Journalist Nicky Hager also published a book in 1996 that described the role of New Zealand in the operation of a global spy network that revolves around signals intelligence gathering. His book contained the first detailed description regarding the operational framework of ECHELON.
The European Parliament investigation
The depth of details exposed by Hager stirred concerns. In 1998, the European Parliament published the report “An Appraisal of Technologies of Political Control” that cited the work of Hager in describing the purpose of the ECHELON surveillance system. The report stated that unlike other electronic surveillance systems developed during the Cold War, the primary purpose of ECHELON is to target non-military entities, including governments, organisations, and businesses in every country.
Tapping into the private communications of common individuals and entities was troubling. Some believed that the signatories of UKUSA were using ECHELON to gather sensitive industrial and trade secrets of companies in Europe to advance the interest of rival American and British companies.
Growing concerns in Europe led to the creation of the Temporary Committee on the ECHELON Interception System in 2000—a specialised 36-member ad hoc committee under the European parliament tasked to investigate the system and related issues. Hager testified before the committee and provided specific details about the surveillance network.
In 2001, the committee published a report detailing the results of the investigation. It concluded that the ECHELON system “most certainly” exists but it could not provide firm evidence that the involved governments have used it as part of commercial espionage. Members of the committee however voted to acknowledge that ECHELON was used to tap satellite communications and interfere with billion-dollar international contracts.
Edward Snowden NSA document archives
Former CIA agency employee and NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden forwarded an archive of top-secret documents to journalists beginning in 2012. The archive contained a 2005 document from the NSA that confirmed the existence of ECHELON.
Apart from confirming the system, the document also revealed how the NSA and the American government tried to keep the entire ECHELON program as a secret. The document also briefly described the investigation conducted by the European Parliament while also mentioning that the NSA worked hard to protect the interests of the signals intelligence partners of the U.S.
It is also interesting to note that the document raised the question about the possibility of European countries realising that the ECHELON program was not a tool for industrial espionage but rather for maintaining global order as part of the US-led war on terror.
Nonetheless, with the release of the document that seemingly confirmed the existence of ECHELON, investigative journalist Campbell felt vindicated after his exposition in 1988. In an Op-Ed article published by The Intercept in 2015, recounted his experiences following the publication of his report while also further discussing the history and capabilities of ECHELON.
Other evidences from government officials
There are other evidences that have confirmed the existence of ECHELON. Even before the release of the NSA documents, several government officials have confirmed surveillance activities using signals intelligence. In 1999 for instance, Martin Brady, then director of the Defence Signals Directorate or DSD of Australia revealed on live television that his government routinely intercepts fax, phone, and Internet communications via satellites over the Indian and Pacific oceans.
Although Brady did not divulge further details, he said DSD cooperates with counterpart signals intelligence organisations of countries under the UKUSA Agreement. He added these organisations follow internal procedures to promote mutual interests and ensure protection of the national security of involved countries.
Former CIA director James Woolsey also confirmed in 2000 that the American intelligence organisations use interception systems to monitor European businesses. He mentioned that the American government spy on these businesses because of poor practices observed when it comes to deals and contracts. These companies resort to bribery to promote their inferior products in the international market—thus competing based not on product quality but on corruption.
The former ranking US government official also said another reason for collecting commercial intelligence is to monitor the sales of supercomputers and chemicals, which could be used for criminal activities. They also monitor the economic activities of countries subjected under sanctions.
Nonetheless, Woolsey reiterated that obtained intelligence and information were not really classified. In fact, most of the data obtained and analysed by the American government came from open-sources.
Further details of the report of Campbell are in the article “Somebody’s Listening” published in 1988 in the New Statesman. Details of the exposition of Hager are in the book “Secret Power—New Zealand’s Role in the International Spy Network” published in 1996 by Craig Potton Publishing.
Further details of the European Parliament report are in the article “An Appraisal of Technologies of Political Control” published in 1998. Further details of the result of European Parliament investigation are in the document “On the Existence of a Global System for the Interception of Private and Commercial Communications” authored by Gerhard Schmid and published in 2001.
More details of the 2005 NSA document about ECHELON are in the document entitled “Back in Time: The ECHELON Story” leaked by Edward Snowden. Further details of the Op-Ed article of Campbell are in “My Life Unmasking British Eavesdropper” published in 2015 in The Intercept.
More details of the revelation of Brady are in the article “Britain and US Spy on World” authored by Duncan Campbell and Honigsbaum and published in 1999 by The Guardian. Details of the revelation of Woolsey are in the article “Why We Spy on Our Allies” published in 2000 in The Wall Street Journal.