Remembering ECHELON: The First International Mass Surveillance Program

By Mila Bera

BELGRADE (IDN) — Ask a family member or friend how much they value their online privacy and you’ll usually get a noncommittal answer that belies their disinterest. In fact, most people don’t have a clue how much their privacy is really worth. Governments and their agencies have no such doubts; they set the price on your privacy long ago.

Today, rumours of an intelligence-sharing alliance spreading across the globe are no conspiracy theory; the 14 Eyes alliance is very real. But before this, five powerful countries were embroiled in a mass surveillance program called ECHELON. And with new and more sophisticated means of government-approved spying appearing all the time, it’s good to remember how it all started if we want to know where it will all lead.

Pegasus’s Older Brother

Politicians and activists are now focusing their attention on Pegasus—an Israeli company’s highly advanced spyware that targets mobile phones—and the headlines it’s making on a global scene. Its core ideas came from ECHELON, a worldwide surveillance and interception system that targeted both personal and commercial communication.

For 50 years, the United States and Great Britain tracked both their friends and enemies via ECHELON. In the past, many individuals and governments suspected that such a program existed, but there was no definite proof. Then, in 2015, Edward Snowden’s leaks revealed the extent to which the NSA has been involved in mass spying thanks to ECHELON. From its beginnings in the 1960s until the present day, ECHELON remains the most developed surveillance network ever created by the Five Eyes.

As time has gone by, the priorities of this overseer program have changed; the scope of surveillance has grown from searching for simple keywords intercepted on old communication devices to mass data harvesting. What started as a network for diplomatic and military actions has turned into a tool for corporate and industrial espionage.

It’s practically impossible to confirm this, but various sources claim that ECHELON uses giant ground-based radio antennas to track and seize satellite transmissions, thus accessing millions of communications.

In the past, the program relied on phrase and keyword searches for valuable data. A mention of an explosion in any context, for example, would be stored and archived in the program’s database.

ECHELON is the most commonly used code name for this spying juggernaut, while some companies that worked on developing it labelled it P415. The NSA itself used another code name to encompass all its surveillance programs: FROSTING, which entailed two sub-programs. The first program, TRANSIENT, was used to track and intercept communication transmissions from Soviet satellites. The second was ECHELON, which intercepted global satellite transmissions.

Changing Tides

This overseer program originally was originally designed to monitor diplomatic and military communication between the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It was officially (although secretly) launched in 1971.

Although its original goal was to protect national security, it seems that the massive spying network quickly turned its eye(s) to a more lucrative field: industrial espionage. There have been several major incidents involving European companies; we’ll take a look at one of them now.

In 1999, well-known German wind energy equipment manufacturer Enercon created a revolutionary generator for wind turbines and quickly applied for a US patent. However, Enercon lost to Kenetech, a rival US company that applied for a nearly identical patent a short time before. One former NSA employee has said that this was no coincidence. According to that whistleblower, the NSA intercepted Enercon’s data communications and calls about the new generator and gave the information to Kenetech.

Spying Examples

In 2001, a temporary committee of the European Parliament compiled an evaluation of ECHELON’s activities. The report contained several examples of espionage allegedly requested by members of the Five Eyes.

In 1983, Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister, allegedly asked for two cabinet ministers to be spied upon with ECHELON. And while we’re talking about the UK, you’ve probably heard that the NSA monitored the communication lines of Princess Diana until she died in 1997. The US agency gathered over 1,000 pages of classified information on her. An NSA representative claimed that Diana was never the subject of surveillance and that all the data collected about her was “incidental.”

Several high-ranking members of the United Nations were also reportedly targets of espionage under the ECHELON program. UK agents allegedly traced the communications of Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the UN at the time. After him, US agents allegedly assembled complex biometric data on Ban Ki-Moon, the eighth Secretary-General.

At the start of the 1990s, the NSA monitored communications between Saudi Arabia and Airbus, a European aerospace company. The US agency spilt industrial secrets that Airbus leaders had bribed Saudi Arabian officials to get a lucrative contract with the country’s national airline. In 1994, Airbus lost this $6 billion contract to McDonnell Douglas, a US aerospace company that later became a part of Boeing.

The CIA acted as a whistleblower and revealed that Thomson-Alcatel, the French telecommunication company, resorted to bribes to acquire the contract with the Government of Brazil over Amazon rainforest monitoring actions. As a result, the US defence contractor and the rival company, Raytheon, got the Amazon rainforest contract.

In 1995, the CIA used ECHELON to get a better trading position with Ryutaro Hashimoto, the Japanese Trade Minister. The US agents did this by tracking the communication between Nissan and Toyota car companies and Japanese officials.

The Ongoing Program

Despite detailed reports regarding the spying activities of the members of Five Eyes, the ECHELON program never received the official suspension confirmation. It is still running surveillance activities. However, this is all unofficial, and in the eyes of certain influential members, these attacks on public privacy never happened. [IDN-InDepthNews – 20 April 2022]

Image source: DataPort

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