The Outing of ECHELON

Before Edward Snowden told us so much about NSA surveillance, before Mark Klein told us a little, even before 9/11, Duncan Campbell broke the story of ECHELON. This is his story of that story. It's a fascinating read.

(Yes, it turns out that NSA mass surveillance didn't start after 9/11.)

Posted on August 7, 2015 at 7:00 AM • 26 Comments

Comments

winterAugust 7, 2015 7:37 AM

Echelon showed years ago that all espionage is economic espionage.

Terrorists and communists or witches and satanists are nothing but side shows to the real game: Spying for a commercial advantage.

AlanSAugust 7, 2015 8:10 AM

Nice reminder that  9/11, AQ and what have you were just extra cover and further justification for ramping up existing practices.

@Winter
We could be more precise about the real game: protecting the political-economic interests of what the Brits call the establishment. It's not about protection of  the public interest.

Moshe YAugust 7, 2015 9:29 AM

ECHELON hit the press in Australia and the US when I visited Oz in 1999. In Australia, the papers discussed the violation of privacy by the NSA. The US stories, by contrast, presented the entire program as a method by which the US government could gather information about non-US business rivals.

VinnyGAugust 7, 2015 9:33 AM

@AlanS
You are correct. The biggest flaw in the competition paradigm in free market capitalism is that those who acheive success through successful competition nearly always turn quickly from advocating a competitive market to trying to stifle it in order to preserve gains with little effort. The instrumentality for this stifling is invariably some form of government. So far as I can tell, that is the only true purpose of the State. There may not be a solution to this dilemma, but if there is, it will lie in modification of the "game" to mitigate against success for those who have strong tendencies to lock in gains in this manner. That would of course need to be accomplished without initiation of force (else its merely a different brand of government).

-VinnyG

GusAugust 7, 2015 10:34 AM

It has become a corruption problem: an oversized monster feeding on us and using any means to expand even more.

keinerAugust 7, 2015 10:57 AM

... the European Parliament had a resolution on ECHELON on 05-SEP-2001. Just 6 days before...

deLaBoetieAugust 7, 2015 11:01 AM

@AlanS , @ VinnyG

To add to the economic narrative, it seems to me that there's a very good case for regarding NSA/GCHQ spying as classic economic rent-seeking behavior. It seems rampant in other areas of the economy (copyright, banking, property rental), so that should be no surprise. Basically, it's unfairly maximising returns by tilting the playing field. The spooks clearly add no value to the economy, they are exploiting other people's ideas and creations to give an edge to their own country. But that ultimately ruins the economy generally in the same way as subsidies do, and I can't believe how they seems blissfully unaware that they are busily killing the golden internet goose, and destroying trust (what little is left) in the markets.

Regrettably, the only remedy I see to this is that, because productivity tanks in the circumstances (and certainly doesn't grow much in comparison with competitive nations), the whole edifice collapsed, much as Honneker's Stasi state did. But it takes a long time and does huge damage.

I have a particular reason to be Extremely Peeved about this behavior, because I have made patent applications, these have - in my estimation - been treason-ably shared amongst the X-eyes by my own government, prior to publication. Whether I've suffered economic harm through that is hard to prove and I have virtually zero recourse, not being a huge gorilla. But it illustrates the problem.

CuriousAugust 7, 2015 11:02 AM

One of the documents at The Intercept, has the following underlined:

"ECHELON routing token applied by dictionary based text keyword scanning engines so that selected intercepts can be routed to a requesting system and/or analyst(s)."

I can imagine how ECHELON is alive and well, eternally churning on transcribed content off people's phones calls.

If every once in a while, a new word in the dictionary is/was crated, I imagine that with transcribed phone calls, every record would have to be scanned again for matching keywords.

Having said this, I guess this feature of transcribing contents of phone conversations has so far not been proven to be a thing. Correct me if I am wrong.

Clive RobinsonAugust 7, 2015 11:34 AM

@ Bruce,

A search on this blog will show it's been mentioned a few times by various people on this blog in the past.

Back in the days before Louis Freech of the FBI came around to do his "private briefings" EU politicos were much more privacy minded and actually had Duncan as an expert witness on the subject.

Back in the day Maggie Thatcher tried to have him prosecuted under both DORA and OSA, it went to trial which eventually colapsed in farce. The final nail in the coffin was when the prosecution accused him of publishing the secret address of GCHQ, the defence played the prosecuter expertly, alowing him to build up his poposity to full furver befor bursting his bubble and ripping the rug right out from under his feet. They did this by simply holding up in court the inside back cover of "Wireless World" magazine, showing the full page GCHQ jobs advert that had been in every copy for years on end. And this add came with the GCHQ address promenently displayed....

Maggie did not give up on her brain farts and it is a matter of public record just how many DORA and OSA cases she insisted upon, and as far as I remember most collapsed in farce or embarrassment...

Clive RobinsonAugust 7, 2015 12:54 PM

@ deleBoetie,

The spooks clearly add no value to the economy, they are exploiting other people's ideas and creations to give an edge to their own country.

It's of interest that you say that.

In the article Duncan mentiones that the "Special Branch" took many of his books, papers and other possessions, he also mentioned his education in Physics. What he did not mention was something I was once told by an insider, apparently Duncan had invented a device using the principle of Time Domain Reflections that could be connected to a POTS line to see if it had been tapped. The security services stole this design and got Marconi to make them for use in the IC...

It's not the only invention the IC in the UK have helped themselves to. A while ago I was talking to someone who had worked in the IC about some confidential work. I had asked for various conditions to be put in place due to the sensitivity of what was involved. They agreed but, later asked me why, and when I told them and they to had an involuntary jaw drop, and I pulled their leg by saying "Oh you've been read in have you", at which point they appeared to suffer further involuntary responses. And I said, "Don't worry, I've not been read in to my own bloody invention, you lot have stolen and not payed a penny for" the look on their face was sufficient that I thought I might have to call an ambulance.

As the article indicated, there are no real official secrets, just dirty ones that journalists are generaly to stupid, lazy or inept to see even when given to them on a plate.

Though there has been one change, after WWII the several thousand workers at Bletchly, the listening posts Y stations and what became the Dipolomatic Wirless Service, kept quiet for over a quater of a century and it was only with the publication of the Winterbottom and jones books that they finaly started to talk (Duncan mentiones a bit about this with the electronic enigmas and Crypto AG). And they have not stopped talking, slowely slowely the veil is being lifted. Everybody said the world would colapse when Steller Rimington lifted the curtain a bit on one of the "Oh so British" MI's, it did not and in quite a few respects it's done the MIs and the Treasury and thus the tax payer a favour.

The old saw about "if you've done nothing wrong..." realy realy applies to State Secrets, most of what is clasified is both increadably dull and in effect a cover up of gross incompetance. As Bruce once said a little sunlight can have a strong cleansing effect. And whilst I think the task is even to big for Hercules to do in a day, somebody realy does need to clean out the stables for the health of the nation.

It's because of this we recently found out that GCHQ had not been adhering --for the past few years-- to the Wilson Doctrine that the IC does not listen in on politicians communications, something the recent new head of GCHQ should be addressing more thoroughly than he is.

Clive RobinsonAugust 7, 2015 1:03 PM

@ Curious,

If every once in a while, a new word in the dictionary is/was crated, I imagine that with transcribed phone calls, every record would have to be scanned again for matching keywords

Probably not, I suspect everything gets converted into an "inverted list" which is an extended form of the inverted index,

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inverted_index

Frank WilhoitAugust 7, 2015 2:03 PM

Nothing started after, or because of, 9/11.

In this connection, the Qwest discovery must always be placed front and center.

It shows that domestic wiretapping, of the Republican enemies list, was literally Job 1 for the incoming G. W. Bush Administration; the very first thing they did upon arriving in DC.

It was, and it is, nothing more, nor less, nor other, than the implementation of the Huston plan, which the Nixon Administration was shamed out of in 1970 by a couple of providential leaks. So it was put on the shelf and waited for its time.

Always, only, speak of the Qwest discovery. 9/11 is a red herring.

Sancho_PAugust 7, 2015 3:25 PM

(off topic)
@Curious, @Clive Robinson

… and only bad boyz would conclude @Clive Robimson (haha) deliberately tries to blow up their inverted list by (sometimes) crating / copying typos that Sancho_P’s dictionary can’t translate …
(sorry, couldn’t resist :-)

The question is whether typos would be banned together with encryption because “we can’t read what you wrote”.

65535August 7, 2015 5:34 PM

One overarching comment on ECHELON is that today’s NSA spying apparatus:

With Cell phone/cell tower takes, botnets, modular rootkits, “Full take” on all major fiber lines, BIOS/firmware Bootkits, SSL stripping, photocopying of all US mail and so on – today's spying is several magnitudes more powerful than ECHELON.

@ Curious

"ECHELON routing token applied by dictionary based text keyword scanning engines so that selected intercepts can be routed to a requesting system and/or analyst(s)."- Intercept

‘I can imagine how ECHELON is alive and well, eternally churning on transcribed content off people's phones calls.’ –Curious

Sadly, it probably is and being funded by the very tax payers it is spying upon. The funding must be cut-off. Let them hold "bake sales" to buy their spy toys.

@ winter

“Terrorists and communists or witches and satanists are nothing but side shows to the real game: Spying for a commercial advantage.”

Yes, I agree. You can add political advantages and court room scamming to the list [Parallel construction and nod-n-wink DEA/FBI/Local LEA shenanigans].

ZackAugust 7, 2015 6:22 PM

The main two incidents in the report which stood out to me was: the absurd response on the secrecy of the name of the installations as displayed on the public signs; and the Johnstone incident, which had a wide variety of absurdities attached to it.

Johnstone, in his pursuit of secrecy, he ended up revealing everything, very loudly, to the entire world.

This was on display at the conference this week. Corporate security folks have no problem carrying on conversations and evading giving out confidential data. But, those with TS clearance or who had it, it really stands out. They are hiding the needle and the haystack. That sounds good on paper, but does not work so well in reality.

Z.

ZackAugust 7, 2015 7:11 PM

@'The Problem with Spying'

Clive Robinson wrote:

The old saw about "if you've done nothing wrong..." realy realy applies to State Secrets, most of what is clasified is both increadably dull and in effect a cover up of gross incompetance.


That is my view of it.

I view it as self-sustaining and self-interested, with very limited rationality.


deleBoetie wrote:

Basically, it's unfairly maximising returns by tilting the playing field. The spooks clearly add no value to the economy, they are exploiting other people's ideas and creations to give an edge to their own country.

I do not view them as so functional. If you merely have very competent researchers you can get that information and act on it. This is true in technical areas, in politics, in economics, in so many fields. The problem is actually making sense of the data which everyone already has.

It is a difficult argument to make, because so much is secret. But, one can plausibly look at the first half plus of the last century and note that 'getting secret intelligence', 'making proper sense of it', and 'acting on it' is very low on the list of competencies of intelligence agencies.

In comparison to the money spent and resources devoted to exactly this pursuit, that finding is especially appalling.

I have a particular reason to be Extremely Peeved about this behavior, because I have made patent applications, these have - in my estimation - been treason-ably shared amongst the X-eyes by my own government, prior to publication. Whether I've suffered economic harm through that is hard to prove and I have virtually zero recourse, not being a huge gorilla. But it illustrates the problem.

A problem with a lot of technical ideas which is years ahead of its time is that by the time anyone finally implements it, it is so often no longer cutting edge.

Finding that tech which is that powerful is hard to do, and the race is always moving.

I see a lot of security tech companies far behind the times. They are making money. Their systems seem new to people. But it was known long ago. They implemented fast enough for market, but not fast enough to keep up with the latest batch of new ideas.

Finding that? That is difficult to do. The spoils go to the truly astute.

Z.

Yog-YogguthAugust 8, 2015 1:00 PM

Echelon is functioning as a text-book misdirection ploy. Possibly inadvertantly but that doesn't matter.

This is not a comment on how Echelon itself is or is not acceptable, it is a comment on how it as a topic is detracting from opposition to mass surveillance and what a failure the fight against mass surveillance has been so far.

By focusing on Echelon:

1. Those who are not paying much attention (most people) will think that everything is all right because this (Echelon) has been going on for over half a century without any serious issues as they see it, and thus these people will sink even deeper into disbelief and scepticism towards anyone who is trying to raise awareness even when such is based on now publicly available documents. Mostly historical focus on Echelon detracts from the “big picture” reality and consequences of nearly total surveillance & manipulation targeting everyone and everything.

With the vastly increased knowledge, information, and capabilities they already have they are (as documented) already far more subtle than the Gestapo, KGB, or Stasi could be, and far more effective too.

If people can't see though that then there's no chance at all that this will be defeated.

Many “of us” also seem to struggle with that part and comprehending what the files they are (or should be) reading says: https://www.eff.org/nsa-spying/nsadocs

There is a shortage of actual information and this should trouble everyone. In addition to that there is a desperate need for more detailed technical information for those who might actually be able to do something defensive.

2. Those who are paying some attention divert into discussing relatively trivial matters of a small facet of mostly historical surveillance and actively weaken their case with regard to the response as pointed out under 1.

The people with access to the Snowden files need to try something else. What they are doing is not working and I'm starting to think they're actually making things worse. If this continues for a few more years we'll all be back to being called paranoid nutters, in actual fact it seems to me only a few “of our own” stopped calling us that, most people seem completely oblivious or worse; in support of the surveillance.

I think those with access to the information must face up to the fact that things have not worked all that well so far and stop pulling their punches: release everything unredacted, make everyone suffer and realize the consequences of what has already happened and where we already are.

Stop being “responsible”.

a ghost only you can seeAugust 8, 2015 6:17 PM

@Yog-Yogguth

Those who are paying some attention divert into discussing relatively trivial matters of a small facet of mostly historical surveillance and actively weaken their case with regard to the response as pointed out under 1.


It is basic trending and pattern following. X happened in the past with Y frequency, so one can therefore postulate the likelihood of X happening in the future. If X did not happen in the past, or happened with a very low Y frequency, that delivers skepticism and does not engender confidence in one's prediction.

It can also be helpful to break down the problem into "reasons why people tend to do these things".

There is no diversion on that, it is in these ways people come to feel confident about their beliefs.

Ever read an interesting headline, then, a few paragraphs in realize the headline was deceptive? That the story was actually not worth the read the headline claimed.

Maybe you keep reading the article anyway. As if the writer is going to hide the bombshell deeper in the story. When they could have dropped the bombshell in the opening paragraphs to get the reader's attention in the first place.

The writer is not diverting attention from the real story.

It is just a slow news day and that is the best they have to say.


There is a shortage of actual information and this should trouble everyone. In addition to that there is a desperate need for more detailed technical information for those who might actually be able to do something defensive. [....] I think those with access to the information must face up to the fact that things have not worked all that well so far and stop pulling their punches: release everything unredacted, make everyone suffer and realize the consequences of what has already happened and where we already are.


You are looking for information in the Snowden documents which is not there.

This trips up even the best minds that deal with the most challenging of scenarios on a regular basis. It is the Detective.

Detectives, they can be great at what they do, but there will come along a case that just they can not get out of their mind. Did they loose the trail at some point? Did they miss something? Their gut, their unconscious, is screaming one thing. But the evidence just is not delivering what they want to see.

But, it can also be, the evidence is not delivering what they believe they should see.

After all, you are correct. X at pattern frequencies of Y can be very, very deceptive. Sometimes X just disappears.

Sometimes X happens in more frequencies.

But, very realistically, we never really know anything as we should... and so X changes. We never knew the meaning of X in the first place. So the trail is not dead.... it is just that X become something else entirely then what we thought it was in the first place.

You have to keep following the evidence, and if the evidence leads to someone else, something else, you have to adapt. You have to look at one's own beliefs, one's own preferences, and change them.

If there are any future truly big bombshells coming, it is not coming from the existing Snowden papers. Even those not released.

If anything, maybe you should consider an entirely different possibility.


There definitely is extremely "spooky" stuff going on. One can find some very disturbing connections 'out there'. But, if one looks closer, it would become, 'what, are they doing, it does not make any sense'. It is at that juncture where evidence is missing.

Wesley ParishAugust 9, 2015 6:18 AM

So the real "crime" was to join the dots and make a coherent and valid picture out of them.

And oh yes, we've known about ECHELON in the Antipodes for quite some years now.

rgaffAugust 9, 2015 6:30 PM

@keiner

"... the European Parliament had a resolution on ECHELON on 05-SEP-2001. Just 6 days before..."

the implications... sigh.

hereticalAugust 9, 2015 9:57 PM

A snowden files without Echelons or Centcom would be just a bunch of files.

As this tablet is just about to electrocute me, I suddenly realized Snowden is just a couple notches away from BigFoot by inverted index logic.


XYZAugust 10, 2015 1:27 AM

@YY

You had some good words there, but you lost me at "Stop being responsible.". How can you expect us to believe you have all that insight but haven't considered this simple equation:

Snowden gets out with an effective gmail backup. Release everything means publishing _everyone's_ complete gmail history (messages and even entire accounts 'deleted' years ago, etc) (and if you want to be paranoid throw in 24/7 archives of every mobile phones mic even when 'off' but a battery still installed). Would releasing the entirety of that really be a good move? I think I actually agree with you, but 'release everything' seems like a bad strategy.

And seriously, where are the people putting two and two together and seeing what is really going on here. People are going to let the USG get away with murder if they believe Hillary will become the first non-male POTUS. I think most of the enlightened people of the planet earth understand that that is a bigger issue that goes back millenia. This Snowden shit is just toys we've been playing with for maybe a hundred years. It's about the private email server. You know, something not under the purview of the Snowden opening salvo PRISM slide. People don't talk about that. Everybody knows. Nobody cares.

john doeAugust 10, 2015 1:51 AM

The relevance of ESCHELON is one of those things that I think will be lost to the next generation. It's too difficult to explain the pervasive popular culture attitude equating anyone mentioning that word, with those literally wearing aluminum foil hats. With Snowden it probably evolves at least to just being a moderately taboo subject, rather than prima facie evidence of mental illness (as masturbation was a couple generations earlier)

a ghost only you can seeAugust 10, 2015 3:21 PM

@john doe

I think the relevance of eschelon is already lost, post-Snowden. Pre-Snowden, it was often mentioned and 'the big thing'. Now, the understanding is simply more specific.

What I do not see being discussed is what I often heard stated, pre-Snowden, to long time back, the 90s, that the 5eyes were evading domestic legal constraints by each spying on one another. That spying likely included psy ops, which can involve pretty drastic, substantial measures.

cynicalAugust 10, 2015 9:21 PM

Historically and hysterically, meaningful words tend to overlap, swap, or fad as polotical polarity rotates. Tracing the root becomes difficult if not impossible as Clive said. Thus it is the balance that rests between historian or custodian of truth. The next snowmen if there ever will won't hold links to the past and if s/he does probably a fake.

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