Alan Simpson on Echelon : LUSENET : Unk's Troll-free Private Saloon : One Thread

(My posting this aught to confuse the hell out of those who view me as a tree hugging liberal... I have to admit I sat on astump of a tree I had know all my life and cried because it had been needlessly cut down (who cared if the roots had erupted through the sidewalk?!?))

MILNET: Alan Simpson's Washington Brief

In this remarkable article, Alan Simpson debunks one of the most recent and extremely popular espionage myths -- one a friend described to me as "...this is one of those stories designed to make the Europeans fighting mad at Americans.". Thankfully, Alan helps us "Yanks" out by showiing...well...I'll let him tell it.


Washington Brief
By Alan Simpson

Echelon - The Myth

There have been volumes written about the satellite eavesdropping network, popularly known as ECHELON. From many of the self-styled "Experts", especially in Europe, the network can intercept every telephone call, fax, and email, even one of Elvis Presley, and Adolf Hitler communicating from their Moonbase.

The frivolity is deliberate, as most of the information comes from conspiracy writers, more used to covering "Little Green Men" coming out of UFO's, and stories of Adolf and Elvis being seen in Arizona than analyzing the technical, logistical, and operational abilities of the agencies, and networks under review. Few have had any training, or exposure to intercept operations.

Technically it is easy to intercept communications using RF (radio frequency) links, such as satellite, or microwave . Every country has these, and the towers clustered with dishes, and horns can be seen at regular intervals. The ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) or SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) satellites pick up the spill from the microwave links, and relay them back to Earth. The satellite links are even easier, and when the huge ground stations were being built, the spy agencies built a duplicate nearby, within  the downlink footprint. Look at Goonhilly Downs, the UK downlink from the Intelsats and the spy center at Morwenstow, Bude, a few miles away. This intercept station was built in 1971, and has been an open secret long before the ECHELON craze began.

The ELINT/SIGINT satellites also pick up cellphones, and all other radio transmissions. But so do scanners, and simple radio receivers. Since radio began spies, both military and civilian, have sat on a hill, or tall building in a city,  and listened to everything around.  Until quite recently you could buy a scanner at Radio Shack, that would intercept all cellphones in the vicinity. Trade conferences, and exhibitions were a lucrative feeding ground, as executives and engineers called their offices, and spoke about orders, and projects.

So ECHELON can pick up every transmission coming up from Earth. Well not exactly! It can receive all radio frequency transmissions, but not those by wire, or worse still by optical fiber. The copper wire can be tapped very easily, and targeted wire-taps are used daily by law enforcement, intelligence, and even illegal civilian snoopers. Optical fiber is very difficult, and special submarines are allegedly now coming into service that can sink to the seabed and tap into the optical fiber cables. So if your telephone call goes through on optical fiber, as most now do, then ECHELON is useless!

Now assuming the satellites pick up your telephone call, along with tens of millions of others, it still has to make sense of the call.  They are run through a huge computer dictionary, which scans for keywords. If  the dictionary does not find these keywords it discards the data. On the Internet there are lists of supposed keywords that will trigger ECHELON.  Notice they are all English. Does that mean the French, Germans, Chinese, Arabs and Americans will not trigger ECHELON, for they all do not speak English. (Well the Americans almost!) It also assumes that the terrorists will conveniently say "This is Osama bin Laden here, bomb the designated target, US Embassy in  Bigtown, with the C4 supplied by Hezbollah".

The network has therefore to be able to track hundreds of languages, and dialects. By this time the reader will begin to realize that this network has not got the resources, staff, nor time to be tracking people who want to "Hug a tree" or demonstrate outside of the US Embassy.  The threat to these people does not come from space, but from the police investigator round the corner, at the local telephone exchange.

Finally the network has to present a human with the intercept. The critics of ECHELON state there are hundreds of millions of these messages intercepted every hour. Take that over a 24 hour period, and the intelligence agencies would need a cast of millions to monitor the airwaves. Even then the majority of messages now go by optical fiber, so the millions employed in looking for "tree huggers" would miss most of the communications.

No lets stop fantasizing and look at what ELINT/SIGINT satellites do. They target areas of concern, and known frequencies, or channels of communication used by our enemies, or potential enemies.  They are essential in the our defense. Do they listen in to corporate communications linked to arms manufacture, aerospace, oil and defence. Absolutely! Knowing the capability of a friend, and foe is essential to modern warfare. Does the US give secrets to commercial corporations. Well lets see, the Vice President was boss of Haliburton, the global oil exploration and support company, the US Defense Secretary was boss of Lilly, the pharmaceutical giant, most of the cleared recipients of US intelligence move on to top jobs in industry, offered years before, or back to their original employers. Do you think they would give away information, vital to their past, or future employers, which will net them billions of dollars?

Every intelligence operation channels details of opportunities, or intercepted information to the key corporations in their country, when convenient. In times of high activity it is the military, and political intercepts that get priority, commercial is low priority. But consider also that dictators like Saddam Hussein build their weapons of mass destruction, with lathes, centrifuges, and material from civilian companies around the world.  Industry is a legitimate target for interception of communications. They supply the weapons, facilities and systems used against us.

Saying that satellites are easily fooled, and it is up to the corporations to cloak their communications in such a way that competitors can't learn of their plans, or intentions. ECHELON, as with all space-based assets can easily be jammed, and is far from the "Bogey in the Sky" threatening the way of life for all in Europe, or outside of the English speaking nations, that conspiracy writers would lead us to believe. Intelligence intercept operations, from personal experience, are hit-or-miss situations at the best of times, against a known target. To take on the whole world is ludicrous.

Consider also that if terrorists struck near them, these critics of ECHELON would be the first to scream that the intelligence agencies should have known about the attacks.  I sleep better at night knowing there are teams of professionals scouring the airwaves for communications between people who are plotting to do me harm. And if they frighten the liberal "tree huggers", tough!

 © Copyright, 2002, Alan Simpson

-- Cherri (whatever@who.cares), June 04, 2002

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