Surveillance and ECHELON

In January, 1998, a commission of the European Parliament wrote a report on An Appraisal of Technologies of Political Control. The report discusses a number of interesting (and frightening) technologies, e.g. non-lethal crowd-control weapons, untraceable methods of torture and interrogation, insect-sized mobile surveillance devices (indeed, in one case the "bugs" were built into real bugs by implanting microprocessors and cameras into cockroaches), and an NSA-led international surveillance project called ECHELON, which intercepts a large fraction of the email, telephone, and fax communications in the world (some estimate as much as 90% of all Internet traffic) screens it automatically for key words, and forwards the relevant messages to various governmental organizations.

A subsequent European Parliament report (in April, 1999) provides more details on the ECHELON system, among others, and points out that it targets primarily civilians: potential terrorists, political organizations such as Amnesty International and Christian Aid, and foreign corporations. For example, the system has been used to collect phone calls and faxes between foreign governments and foreign corporations, providing evidence of bribery which was then used to win the contract for a U.S. corporation instead. The system has also been used to predict the bargaining positions of other countries in international trade agreements, to gain advantage for U.S. negotiators in those agreements. (Great Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia also participate in the ECHELON system as junior partners, and reap similar benefits.)

The U.S. government, as of February, 2002, continued to deny the existence of ECHELON, but the Australian and New Zealand governments have confirmed it. The U.S. House Select Committee on Intelligence recently asked the NSA whether it was using ECHELON to intercept the communications of U.S. citizens (which would be illegal); the NSA invoked attorney-client privilege and refused to answer. In May, 2001, the European Parliament issued another report concluding that the system did in fact exist, and expressing concern that it was being used for economic espionage, not purely for national-security intelligence.

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