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A radome at RAF Menwith Hill, a site with satellite downlink capabilities used by ECHELON.
A radome at RAF Menwith Hill, a site with satellite downlink capabilities used by ECHELON.

ECHELON is a name used to describe a highly secretive world-wide signals intelligence and analysis network run by the UKUSA Community (otherwise described as the "Anglo-Saxon alliance") that has been reported by a number of sources including, in 2001, a committee of the European Parliament (EP report). According to some sources ECHELON can capture radio and satellite communications, telephone calls, faxes, e-mails and other data streams nearly anywhere in the world and includes computer automated analysis and sorting of intercepts . The EP committee, however, concluded that "the analysis carried out in the report has revealed that the technical capabilities of the system are probably not nearly as extensive as some sections of the media had assumed" (EP report, p. 11).


The EP committee stated that "it seems likely, in view of the evidence and the consistent pattern of statements from a very wide range of individuals and organisations, including American sources, that its name is in fact ECHELON, although this is a relatively minor detail." (EP report, p. 11) The U.S. intelligence community uses many code names. See, for example, CIA cryptonym.

Margaret Newsham claims that she worked on the configuration and installation of some of the software that makes up the ECHELON system while employed at Lockheed Martin, for whom she worked from 1974 to 1984 in Sunnyvale, California and in Menwith Hill, England.. At that time, according to Newsham, the code name ECHELON was NSA's term for the computer network itself. Lockheed called it P415 . The software programs were called SILKWORTH and SIRE. A satellite named VORTEX would intercept communications. An image available on the internet of a fragment apparently torn from a job description shows Echelon listed along with several other code names.


Reportedly created to monitor the military and diplomatic communications of the Soviet Union and its East Bloc allies during the Cold War in the early sixties, today ECHELON is believed to search also for hints of terrorist plots, drug-dealers' plans, and political and diplomatic intelligence. But some critics, including the European Union, claim the system is being used also for large-scale commercial theft and invasion of privacy. This is in fact why the report was commissioned (see EU report).

While details of methods and capabilities are highly sensitive and protected by special laws (e.g. 18 USC 798), gathering signals intelligence ( SIGINT) is an acknowledged mission of the U.S. National Security Agency. As of August 2006, their web site had a FAQ page on the topic, which states:

"NSA/CSS’s Signal Intelligence mission is to intercept and analyze foreign adversaries' communications signals, many of which are protected by codes and other complex countermeasures. We collect, process, and disseminate intelligence reports on foreign intelligence targets in response to intelligence requirements set at the highest levels of government. ... Foreign intelligence means information relating to the capabilities, intentions, and activities of foreign powers, organizations or persons."

In 2001, the EP report (p. 19) recommended that citizens of member states routinely use cryptography in their communications to protect their privacy. In the UK, the government introduced the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act which gives authorities the power to demand that citizens hand over their encryption keys, without a judge-approved warrant. In April 2004, the European Union decided to spend 11 million euros developing secure communication based on quantum cryptography — the SECOQC project — a system that would theoretically be unbreakable by ECHELON or any other espionage system. European governments have been leery of ECHELON since a December 3, 1995 story in the Baltimore Sun claiming that aerospace company Airbus lost a $6Billion contract with Saudi Arabia in 1994 after the NSA reported that Airbus officials had been bribing Saudi officials to secure the contract .


The ability to intercept communications depends on the medium used, be it radio, satellite, microwave, cellular or fibre-optic (EP report p. 30 ff) During World War II and through the 1950s, high frequency ("short wave") radio was widely used for military and diplomatic communication (The Codebreakers, Ch. 10, 11), and could be intercepted at great distances (EP report p. 33). The rise of geostationary communications satellites in the 1960s presented new possibilities for intercepting international communications. The EP report states (p. 34) "If UKUSA states operate listening stations in the relevant regions of the earth, in principle they can intercept all telephone, fax and data traffic transmitted via such satellites." Many, if not most reports on ECHELON focus on satellite interception. (e.g. )

The role of satellites in point-to-point voice and data communications has largely been supplanted by fibre optics. As of 2006, 99 percent of the world's long-distance voice and data traffic is carried over optical-fibre cables. The 2001 EP report (p. 37) states that "the proportion of international communications accounted for by satellite links has decreased substantially over the past few years in Central Europe; it lies between 0.4 and 5%." Even in less developed parts of the world, such as Latin America, communications satellites are used largely for point-to-multipoint applications, such as video . The EU report concludes (p. 11) "this means that the majority of communications cannot be intercepted by earth stations, but only by tapping cables and intercepting radio signals, something which — as the investigations carried out in connection with the report have shown — is possible only to a limited extent.

One approach is to place intercept equipment at locations where fibre optic communications are switched. For the Internet, much of the switching occurs at a relatively small number of sites. There have been reports of one such intercept site in the United States. In the past, much Internet traffic was routed through the U.S. and the UK. However this is less true at present. According the to the 2001 EP report (p. 33), "95% of intra-German Internet communications are routed via a switch in Frankfurt." Thus for a worldwide surveillance network to be comprehensive, either illegal intercept sites would be required on the territory of friendly nations or cooperation of local authorities would be needed. The EP report points out (p. 27) "interception of private communications by foreign intelligence services is by no means confined to the US or British foreign intelligence services." U.S. intelligence maintains liaison relationships with countries all over the world . Some reports of cooperation involving signals intelligence have come to light since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. Monitoring of mobile phones in Pakistan was reportedly used to track Khalid Shaikh Mohammed before he was arrested in Rawalpindi on March 1, 2003 (How Tiny Swiss Cellphone Chips Helped Track Global Terror Web, New York Times, March 4, 2004).

According to many reports, the captured signals are then processed through a series of computers, that are programmed to search for targeted addresses, words, phrases or even individual voices.


US intelligence agencies are generally prohibited from spying on people inside the US, and other Western countries' intelligence services generally faced similar restrictions within their own countries. There are allegations, however, that ECHELON and the UKUSA alliance were used to circumvent these restrictions by, for example, having the UK facilities spy on people inside the US and the US facilities spy on people in the UK, with the agencies exchanging data. The NSA state on its SIGINT FAQ web page "We have been prohibited by executive order since 1978 from having any person or government agency, whether foreign or U.S., conduct any activity on our behalf that we are prohibited from conducting ourselves. Therefore, NSA/CSS does not ask its allies to conduct such activities on its behalf nor does NSA/CSS do so on behalf of its allies."

The proposed US-only " Total Information Awareness" program relied on technology similar to ECHELON, and was to integrate the extensive sources it is legally permitted to survey domestically with the "taps" already compiled by ECHELON. It was cancelled by the U.S. Congress in 2004.

It has been alleged that in 2002 the Bush Administration extended the ECHELON program to domestic surveillance. This controversy was the subject of the New York Times eavesdropping exposé of December, 2005 .


The UKUSA intelligence alliance has maintained ties in collecting and sharing intelligence since World War II. Each member of the UKUSA alliance is allegedly assigned responsibilities for monitoring different parts of the globe. Canada's main task used to be monitoring northern portions of the former Soviet Union and conducting sweeps of all communications traffic that could be picked up from embassies around the world. In the post-Cold War era, a greater emphasis has been placed on monitoring satellite, radio and cellphone traffic originating from Central and South America, primarily in an effort to track drugs and non-aligned paramilitary groups in the region. The United States, with its vast array of spy satellites and listening posts, monitors most of Latin America, Asia, Asiatic Russia and northern mainland China. Britain listens in on Europe and Russia west of the Urals as well as Africa. Australia hunts for communications originating in Indochina, Indonesia and southern mainland China. New Zealand sweeps the western Pacific.

Supporters stress that ECHELON is simply a method of sorting captured signals and is just one of the many arrows in the intelligence community's quiver, along with increasingly sophisticated bugging and communications interception techniques, satellite tracking, through-clothing scanning, automated biometric recognition systems that can recognize faces, fingerprints & retina patterns.

The U.S. communications-intelligence agency is the National Security Agency (NSA), which is headquartered at Fort Meade, just outside Washington, DC. Although the NSA budget is classified, as of 1996 the agency was estimated to have a global staff of roughly 38,000 and a budget of approximately US$3.6-billion. The UK equivalent organisation is the Government Communications Headquarters GCHQ based at Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. Further, smaller organisations exist to provide communications technology and expertise (e.g. Her Majesty's Government Communication Centre HMGCC).

By comparison, Canada's communications-intelligence operations are conducted by the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), a branch of the Canadian Department of National Defence. It has a staff of 1600 people and an annual budget of $110 million CAD. The CSE's headquarters is the Sir Leonard Tilley Building on Heron Road in the nation's capital of Ottawa, Ontario, and its main communications intercept site is located on an old armed-forces radio base in Leitrim, just south of Ottawa.

On July 6, 2000 the BBC published an article called Echelon: Big brother without a cause? that said:

The Echelon spy system, whose existence has only recently been acknowledged by US officials, is capable of hoovering up millions of phone calls, faxes and emails a minute. [...] Echelon evolved out of Cold War espionage arrangements set up by the US and UK in 1948, and later bringing in Australia, Canada and New Zealand, in their capacity as Britain's Commonwealth partners. The biggest of Echelon's global network of listening posts is at Menwith Hill, North Yorkshire, where about 30 "giant golf balls" called radomes litter the landscape. The system also boasts 120 American satellites in geostationary orbit. Bases in the five countries are linked directly to the headquarters of the secretive US National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters at Fort Mead, Maryland. The system's superpowerful voice recognition capability enables it to filter billions of international communications for whatever key words or word patterns are programmed in.


According to its web site NSA is "a high technology organization, ... on the frontiers of communications and data processing." In 2006, the Baltimore Sun reported that the NSA was at risk of electrical overload, because of insufficient internal electrical infrastructure at Fort Meade to support the amount of computer equipment being installed.

While there are occasional stories speculating on the types of computers involved, Jonathan Meier, in his biography, has stated of his time at the NSA that:

"Conjecture and speculation were rampant on the [ECHELON] projects, even internally. Truthfully, very few individuals were privy to the logistics involved."

At least one company, Narus, is publicly selling systems for mass surveillance of Internet traffic and one of its systems was apparently installed in 2003 in Room 641A, allegedly an intercept station run by AT&T on behalf of NSA.

In 1999 the Australian Senate Joint Standing Committee on Treaties was told by Professor Desmond Ball that the Pine Gap facility was used as a ground station for a satellite based interception network. The satellites are claimed to be large radio dishes between 20 and 100 metres across, parked in geostationary orbits. The original purpose of the network was to monitor the telemetry from 1970s Soviet weapons, air defence radar, communications satellites and ground based microwave communications. The network is still operational and coordinated by US, British and Australian intelligence communities.

Ground stations

Some of the ground stations suspected of belonging to or participating in the ECHELON network include:

Likely satellite intercept stations

The following stations are listed in the EP report (p.54 ff) as likely to have a role in intercepting transmissions from telecommunications satellites:

  • Hong Kong (since closed)
  • Australian Defence Satellite Communications Station ( Geraldton, Western Australia)
  • Menwith Hill ( Yorkshire, UK)
  • Misawa Air Base (Japan)
  • Morwenstow ( Cornwall, UK)
  • Pine Gap ( Northern Territory, Australia - close to Alice Springs)
  • Sabana Seca (Puerto Rico - US)
  • Sugar Grove (West Virginia, US)
  • Yakima ( Washington, US) Map
  • Waihopai (New Zealand)

Possible satellite intercept stations

The following stations are listed in the EP report (p.57 ff) as ones whose roles "cannot be clearly established":

  • Agios Nikolaos (Cyprus - UK)
  • Bad Aibling (Germany - US) - moved to Griesheim in 2004
  • Buckley Air Force Base ( Colorado, US)
  • Fort Gordon ( Georgia, US)
  • Guam (Pacific Ocean, US)
  • Kunia ( Hawaii, US)
  • Leitrim (south of Ottawa, Canada)
  • Medina Annex ( Texas, US)

Various other ground stations

The following facilities have been claimed to host various intelligence gathering stations of U.S. intelligence agencies and armed forces or their allies.

  • Alert ( Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, Canada)
  • Bremerhaven (Germany - UK)
  • RAF Chicksands ( Bedfordshire, UK)
  • Diego Garcia (Indian Ocean - US-UK)
  • RAF Digby ( Lincolnshire, UK)
  • Elmendorf Air Force Base ( Alaska - US)
  • Feltwell (Norfolk, UK)
  • Fort Meade ( Maryland, US) (headquarters of NSA)
  • Gander ( Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada)
  • Gibraltar (UK)
  • Griesheim (near Darmstadt, Germany - US)
  • Mount Gabriel, Midleton, Co. Cork, Ireland (Eircom satellite communications station)
  • Karamursel (Turkey - US)
  • Malta (Malta - UK)
  • Masset ( British Columbia, Canada)
  • Osan Air Base (South Korea, US)
  • Rota, Spain (Spain, US)
  • Shoal Bay Receiving Station ( Northern Territory, Australia)
  • West Point, New York ( NY, US)
  • Aflandshage, Denmark (Denmark)
  • Tangimoana (New Zealand)
  • Naval Communication Station Harold E. Holt ( Exmouth, Western Australia)

Former ground stations

  • Augsburg (Germany - US) - closed in 1993
  • Clark Air Base (Philippines - US) - closed in 1997
  • Edzell (Scotland, UK) - closed in 1997
  • Kabkan (Iran - US) - closed in 1979
  • Little Sai Wan (Hong Kong - UK) - closed in 1984
  • Nurrungar ( South Australia, Australia - south of Woomera, South Australia) - closed in 1999
  • San Vito dei Normanni (Italy - US) - closed in 1994
  • Teufelsberg ( West Berlin, Germany - US) - closed in 1989
  • Silvermine (near Cape Town, South Africa - US)

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