: Sourced from Cyberbully Edition of Mesh - www.experimenta.org

(original from Aug 1999 / last modified Nov 1999)


We won the war... Now we are fighting the peace. It's a lot more volatile... Ten year olds go on the net and download encryption we can barely break - not to mention instructions on how to build a nuclear device. Privacy has been dead for 30 years because we can't risk it. The only privacy that is left is the inside of your head and maybe that's enough.(1)

Nearly 50 years ago, the National Security Agency, better known as the NSA, was established by President Truman as the formal organisation responsible for extracting information from foreign communications.(2)

The following article describes a cyberbully called Echelon. The aim of this article is to inform you of a state of surveillance and control that exists amongst us.

Echelon is the code name for a global surveillance system designed and coordinated by the NSA to "intercept ordinary e-mail, fax, telex and telephone communications carried over the world's telecommunications networks"(3). Echelon isn't a bug or a powerful satellite or a sensitive receiver; it is a distributed network having a number of interception sites around the world which tap in to major telecommunications networks. Because of the integral role telecommunications play in our society, Echelon has effectively become a set of omnipresent eyes and ears that can see and hear everything.

As part of the post-World War II UK-USA Agreement, England, Canada, New Zealand and Australia collaborated with the United States with Echelon. The top intelligence agencies in the collaborating countries allocated resources to serve Echelon. They tap in to local telecommunications networks in order to monitor embassies, consulates, non-government and government offices, political groups and other groups and individuals who are perceived to be a potential threat. Echelon's collaborators collect the data, and use decryption and analysis software provided by the NSA to determine the actual content. The content is analysed and what is deemed special is passed on to the NSA and possibly other collaborators.

Echelon functions very much like web-bots that are sent out by the major internet search engines to index and categorise web sites and pages. But unlike web-bots, the Echelon-bots traverse all telecommunications mediums - from microwave links to the fibre-optic cables - searching for keywords and phrases, recognising pre-marked voices, locating data that contains specific names of individuals or organisations, and recording and storing the information for its potential intelligence value.

The fact that surveillance is occurring by agencies such as the NSA is of concern, though in a new world order of communications technology, we have become tolerant and accepting of it. However, we should be very concerned by Echelon because it is designed for the public domain, to gather intelligence about the everyday.

Echelon is designed primarily for non-military targets such as governments, organisations, businesses and individuals. In the European Parliament report An Appraisal of the Technologies of Political Control, the main concern was the ability of the NSA to access and intercept all European telecommunications4. This report, which was published in early 1998, was responsible for mainstreaming Echelon. Since its publication, a significant number of major media outlets have covered the issue. In May 1999, Channel Nine's Sunday5 program featured a story on Echelon, and on it the Australian brother, the Defence Signals Directorate became the first to publicly admit participation in the UK-USA alliance, the collaborators behind Echelon. Australia operates special Echelon-serving facilities from Geraldton in Western Ausrtalia, and from Shoal Bay in the Northern Territory. No doubt other facilities such as Pine Gap also assist when required.

The Echelon surveillance operates discreetly, efficiently and totally. When we or a corporation, communicate via email or through the phone, a significant amount of intimate information is revealed. Almost all forms of transactions utilise some path of the communications network. Echelon operates across the integrated media we live in. It can listen to the radio, watch television, see our faxes, receipts, emails and hard-drives, hear our phone calls, our inquiries and our negotiations. It collects the information, analyses it, cross-references it, stores it, acts on it and forwards what might be relevant to collaborators.

Echelon is concerned with more than revealing a terrorist threat or a foreign nation's military tactics. National security includes economic security or more accurately economic advantage. Mike Frost, a former Canadian intelligence agent is quoted by an article in The Age saying:

Now that the Cold War is over, the focus is towards economic intelligence. Never ever over-exaggerate the power that these organisations have to abuse a system such as Echelon. Don't think it can't happen in Australia. It does.6

The same article suggests that there was concern that the British would pass Echelon intelligence about East Timor on to the Indonesians in order to win a lucrative military contract.

The internet is one of the many mediums covered by Echelon and as this medium becomes more prevalent, Echelon's job also becomes less difficult. The internet, like many of the new technologies, was presented to us by the military world, a world where discipline and the verification of discipline is central to its functioning. The design of the internet permits this verification or monitoring to occur perfectly. There is no need to attach physical bugging devices or wiretaps or guess passwords. Information can be intercepted at many points, at the internet service provider, at the telecom provider, at one of the nodes, cables or satellites that internet information travels through, or even at the originating or destination computer. Intelligent software agents monitor packets of data as they stream through the networks, and make copies of anything that is relevant. There is strong evidence to suggest that packet-sniffing software has been installed at major internet exchange points and that the NSA has collaborated with leading software manufactures such as Microsoft, Lotus and Netscape to modify software applications to enable Echelon to work more efficiently7. This partnership with the corporations may represent the true paradigm shift.

"The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously."8 On the internet, you can send an email, and browse web pages simultaneously. It works like the telescreens in George Orwell's 1984 which was first published 50 years ago. But with your computer, more than pictures and sounds get received and transmitted and it all happens completely transparently. We often forget that our computers are connected to an ever expanding internet grid. When the net was gaining popularity there was a report that Microsoft was able to gather the data that was stored in Excel spreadsheets. There are regular reports about websites being able to access your hard-drive - but we tend to live with a false sense of security thinking that only if we download software from the internet are we in danger. The internet is being used by artists and activists to critique governments and the corporations, to exchange information and formulate strategies and plans to challenge unjust regulations, and protest against acts that benefit only the rich and powerful. It is essential that we understand our working and living environment. The computer is downloading and uploading data to the internet constantly and we need to be aware of this - and like in Orwell's 1984 - there is "no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment".9

Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish describes how "disciplinary power"10 can be everywhere yet operate discreetly. He maps Bentham's Panopticon architecture for prisons on western society. The panopticon functions by producing in the inmate or the citizen "a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power"11. The ideas behind the panopticon and Foucoult's writings are very useful for us to understand Echelon and its intentions. We are definitely living in a society that is more surveilled than ever before. Security cameras watch us walking the streets, doing the shopping and banking. Our cars are becoming electronically tagged to 'assist' with our safety and allow convenient toll collection. We can even be physically located by our mobile phones. In our computers, the microprocessors are embedded with a serial number. The more technology we use and carry on us - the easier we become objects of surveillance and subjects of control.

We are told the innocent should have nothing to fear. After all, the surveillance is being carried out by intelligence agencies established by the government to protect its people and its interests from terrorism and foreign powers. But if we oppose the views of the government or the actions of the corporation are we still innocent? The privacy rights of 'innocent' US citizen have recently created tension between the NSA and the United States Congress. In the United States Bill of Rights, Amendment IV states:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.12

Congress requested from the NSA documents that outline the standards used to protect US citizens from Echelon but the NSA refused to.13 At the time of writing, it is unknown what the final outcome of this standoff is, however attempts in the past by the US Congress to document the activities of 'Big Brother' have always been contained.

In Australia, the latest threats to the cyber medium come from the Broadcast Services Amendment (Online Services) Bill 1999(14) which aim to regulate the content that can be placed on and accessed from the internet. The main reason given for these amendments is to "protect Australian citizens, especially children, from illegal and highly offensive material"(15). But like the European Parliament, we should consider telecommunications and the internet in terms of technologies of political control. Through this perspective, we may be able to see the real reason for internet regulation and understand the role telecommunications surveillance plays. Echelon has the ability to reveal whether or not the internet is an effective tool for critiquing and opposing the way the government operates. Depending on how vulnerable the government feels, it may determine the internet be more like a propriety commercial medium like the private membership-based America Online network, rather than an independent medium which is relatively easy to access by the whole community. The Broadcast Services Amendment (Online Services) Bill 1999 is a sign of future regulations and codes of practice for Australia. We should also be able to perceive the possible strategies of media corporations with their diverse alliances and close relationships with the government. The roads we drive on are slowly becoming toll-ways. It would be naive for us to assume that the internet will always be as accessible as it is today.

Strong encryption of information may offer resistance to Echelon. Encryption alters the information so that only persons with the decryption code can actually understand the information. Even if Echelon can intercept the message, the contents of the message would not be understood. In 1993, concern over this prompted the US Government to introduce the clipper chip which would provide strong communications encryption for law abiding citizens while preserving "the ability of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to intercept lawfully the phone conversations of criminals"(16). The clipper chip didn't get off the ground - but there are regular attempts by the US to resist the development and exportation of strong encryption. One of the latest is the Federal Intrusion Detection Network which allows the FBI to "constantly track computer activities looking for indications of computer network intrusions and other illegal acts"(17). The use of strong encryption could be considered by law enforcement agencies as an indication of illegal acts.

We can probably assume that Echelon is capable of intercepting our messages, but we still have the ability to protect their contents. Encryption can be used to safeguard our privacy, however even this provision is currently under threat. Law enforcement agencies want to force us to use their approved encryption systems. No doubt there will be attempts to introduce laws that make it illegal for us to use unofficial or non-standard encryption systems to protect the privacy of our communications.

There isn't a strong culture of dissent in our society. Perhaps this is because there is little to fight against or perhaps it is because we are already highly disciplined by systems of control such as Echelon. The view expressed by the government authority that surveillance is needed to deter crime and terrorism is only partially true. The ease of accessibility by ordinary people to telecommunications technologies such as the internet and to strong unsanctioned encryption software is putting political control at risk. The only way to reduce this risk is to have effective integrated cyberbullies like Echelon and to implement rules, regulations, and codes of practice that will reduce the effectiveness of telecommunications technologies in the hands of the ordinary person.

There is an urgent need to defend our access to freedom of expression and to feel safe and secure in our mediums of communication which are effectively our mediums of existence. We need to understand Echelon as an integrated system, which is linked to government and corporate power. As artists and content makers, we need to produce works that clearly express the process of power and control that result from Echelon and show the inevitable future this process will lead to. Perhaps we need to re-consider the stories of popular films like Terminator, Enemy of the State and The Matrix as signs of a possible future, rather than dismissing them as simply escapist Hollywood blockbusters.



End Notes:

1. Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer Production, A film by Tony Scott, Enemy of the State, Touchstone Pictures, 1998, http://movies.go.com/eos/

2. President Truman Memorandum, Communications Intelligence Activities, US Government, Oct 24 1952, http://www.nsa.gov/docs/efoia/released/truman.html

3. Nicky Hager, Exposing the Global Surveillance System, Covert Action Quartely, 1998, http://jya.com/echelon.htm

4. Steve Wright, Omega Foundation, An Appraisal of Technologies for Political Control, European Parliament, January 6, 1998, http://cryptome.org/stoa-atpc.htm

5. Ross Coulthart, Nick Farrow, Big Brother is Listening, Sunday, Channel 9, May 23 1999, http://sunday.ninemsn.com.au/sun_cover2.asp?id=818

6. Duncan Campbell, Careful, they might hear you, The Age, May 23 1999, http://www.theage.com.au/daily/990523/news/news3.html

7. Duncan Campbell, IPTV Ltd, Interception Capabilities 2000, European Parliament, April 1999, http://www.gn.apc.org/duncan/ic2report.htm

8. George Orwell, 1984, Penguin Books, 1977, p6

9. George Orwell, 1984, Penguin Books, 1977, p6

10. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, Penguin Books, 1979, p177

11. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, Penguin Books, 1979, p201

12. The Constituion of the United States, Amendment IV, The Bill of Rights, http://www.usia.gov/usa/infousa/facts/aboutusa/billeng.htm

13. Daniel Verton, Efforts made to prevent privacy abuses against US citizens, CNN Interactive, June 7 1999

14. The Senate, Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, Broadcasting Services Amendment (Online Services) Bill 1999, May 26, 1999, http://www.ozemail.com/~mbarker/amended.html

15. Richard Alston, Alton concerned by threats to Interent protections, Media Release, Department of Communications and the Arts, April 19 1999, http://www.dcita.gov.au/nsapi-graphics/?Mlval=dca_dispdoc&ID=3756^template=Newsroom

16. Press Secretary, Government Announcement of the Clipper Chip, The White House, April 16 1993, http://stasi.bradley.edu/privacy/clipper_announce.html

17. John Markoff, U.S. Drafting Plan for Computer Monitoring System, New York Times, July 28 1999, http://www.nytimes.com/library/tech/99/07/biztech/articles/28compute.html