Originally devoted solely to monitoring the military and diplomatic communications of the Soviet Union and its East Bloc allies, today Echelon searches for hints of terrorist plots, drug-dealer's plans and political and diplomatic intelligence. But critics claim the system is also being used for crass commercial theft and a brutal invasion of privacy on a staggering scale.
The Echelon system is simple in design. All members of the English-speaking alliance are part of the UKUSA intelligence alliance that has maintained ties since the Second World War. These states have positioned electronic-intercept stations and deep-space satellites to capture all satellite, microwave, cellular and fibre-optic communications traffic. The captured signals are then processed through a series of supercomputers, known as dictionaries, that are programmed to search each communication for targeted addresses, words, phrases or even individual voices.
Individual states in the UKUSA alliance are 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 and radio and cellphone traffic originating from Central and South America, primarily in an effort to track drugs and thugs in the region. The UnitedStates, with its vast array of spy satellites and listening posts, monitors most of Latin America, Asia, Asiatic RussiA? and northern 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 ChinA?. NewZealand sweeps the western Pacific.
Experts stress that Echelon is simply a method of sorting captured signals and is just one of the many new arrows in the intelligence community's quiver, along with increasingly sophisticated bugging and interception techniques, satellite tracking, through-clothing scanning, automatic fingerprinting and recognition systems that can recognize genes, odours or retina patterns.
The Americans dominate the UKUSA alliance, providing most of the computer expertise and frequently much of the personnel for global interception bases. The U.S. National Security Agency, headquartered in Fort Meade, Md., just outside Washington, has a global staff of 38,000 and a budget estimated at more than $3.6-billion (all dollar figures US unless otherwise specified). That's more than the FBI and the CIA combined.
By comparison, Canada's communications-intelligence operations are conducted by the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), a branch of the National Defence Department. It has a staff of 890 people and an annual budget of $110-million (Cdn). The CSE's headquarters, nicknamed "The Farm," is the Sir Leonard Tilley Building on Heron Road in Ottawa, and its main communications intercept site is located on an old armed-forces radio base in Leitrim, just south of Ottawa.
The governments of AustraliA and the Netherlands have already confirmed that Echelon exists. Furthermore, Former CIA Director R. James Woosley has admitted using the system information about foreign companies using bribes to win foreign contracts. The information was passed on to US companies and foreign governments were pressed to stop the bribes.