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Tuesday, 29 May, 2001, 13:00 GMT 14:00 UK
Q&A: What you need to know about Echelon

A European Parliament committee has advised computer users to encrypt all their e-mails if they want to avoid being spied on by the Echelon eavesdropping network. BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward looks further.

What is Echelon?

Echelon is the name given to an international electronic eavesdropping network run by the intelligence organisations of the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

It is thought that within intelligence organisations the name "Echelon" only refers to the part of the network that intercepts satellite communications, but it has now become associated with the global tapping grid.

The inter-governmental agreement that gave rise to Echelon dates back to 1947 when the nations that now operate it signed accords agreeing to share and swap intelligence data.

The first Echelon network was built in 1971, but it has regularly been updated since then. The US National Security Agency (NSA) is thought to be the driving force behind the network.

Civil rights groups who monitor Echelon say it can be used to intercept almost any electronic communication, be it a phone conversation, mobile phone call, e-mail message, fax transmission, net browsing history, or satellite transmission.

The wildest estimates of its capabilities report that it can sift through up to 90% of all internet traffic.

How does it work?

Echelon is not thought to be a real-time tapping network. Instead it captures all the traffic it can and then sifts through it for keywords or anything the intelligence services deem to be "suspicious".

The network can apparently capture data in several ways. It uses terrestrial radio antennae that intercept satellite transmissions, and is also thought to have its own fleet of satellites that dip into transmissions between cities.

It also has many sites around the world that tap into communications conducted via wires.

"Sniffing" devices are thought to have been installed in key internet routing centres to catch addressing information from the packets of data passing through.

Data beamed along fibre-optic networks is not thought to be safe either. The NSA has reportedly developed devices that can tap optical undersea cables.

These deep water cables have replaced satellites as the main way that data travels between continents. One cable can carry tens of thousands of phone calls at once. One fibre-tap was discovered in 1982, but many others are thought to be in existence.

The recently published European Parliament report on Echelon played down some of the wilder claims for the network's eavesdropping abilities and said it can tap a "limited" proportion of net traffic, radio communications and cable transmissions.

What can we do to protect ourselves?

The sheer volume of data that Echelon has to sift through can help you hide. If you really want to stay anonymous use only payphones or buy a pre-pay mobile phone that doesn't require you to give an address when you buy it.

Consider changing to a net service provider that you can use anonymously, and does not assign you a fixed net address.

You can use encryption software to protect your e-mail messages, but as most messages are not protected this might make it a target for the security services.

It is likely that the intelligence agencies can crack open most commercially available encryption software. Even if they can't, the many holes and security bugs found in most software packages render them much easier to circumvent.

Echelon could be defeated by the ubiquitous network technologies that are currently being developed. One reason that phone calls are easy to tap is because they directly link two people. However the rise of the net radically changes the way that data is packaged up and sent.

Over the net, and more so with future phone networks, packets of data take a circuitous route to their destination. The proliferation of these networks will make it harder and harder for security forces to tap all of a data stream.

What does it look for?

Beyond the network of radio antenna, fleets of satellites and wiretaps, Echelon is thought to use a large computer network to sift through the vast pool of data it constantly collects.

This computer system looks for key words, phrases, addresses and names. This helps the intelligence agencies build up a picture of the communication and contact networks of people it deems suspicious or requiring watching.

Echelon was originally developed to help spies keep watch on the intelligence agencies and agents of opposing powers. With the end of the Cold War the focus has changed from espionage to surveillance of terrorists, organised crime, sensitive diplomatic negotiations such as treaty agreements and domestic political groups deemed to be a threat.

Why don't we know about it?

It is a secret network, and governments are very sensitive about accusations that they are increasingly spying on the largely innocent electronic communications of millions of their citizens. The US Government still refuses to admit that Echelon even exists.

Knowledge about its existence has come from the Australian and New Zealand governments as well as the efforts of many civil liberty groups.

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See also:

03 Nov 99 | World
Echelon spy network revealed
29 May 01 | Europe
Warning for UK over spy network
23 Feb 00 | World
France accuses US of spying
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