Posts Tagged ‘ECHELON’

William Blum on EU Opposition to US Telecommunications Surveillance

February 22, 2016

I found this interesting little snippet about US electronic spying in issue 118 of William Blum’s Anti-Empire Report. In it, Blum discusses the Echelon system, that allows the US to spy on phone calls around the world. The systems works by tapping phones, listening for certain trigger words. When these get picked up, the call gets recorded and passed onto the NSA, the biggest of the US’ many intelligence agencies. It’s been known about for a very long time. The British conspiracy magazine, Lobster, had an article about it way back in the 1990s. What is interesting is that the EU was opposed to the system, and tried to block American spying on European citizens. Blum writes

ECHELON is carried out without official acknowledgment of its existence, let alone any democratic oversight or public or legislative debate as to whether it serves a decent purpose. The extensiveness of the ECHELON global network is a product of decades of intense Cold War activity. Yet with the end of the Cold War, its budget – far from being greatly reduced – was increased, and the network has grown in both power and reach; yet another piece of evidence that the Cold War was not a battle against something called “the international communist conspiracy”.

The European Parliament in the late 1990s began to wake up to this intrusion into the continent’s affairs. The parliament’s Civil Liberties Committee commissioned a report, which appeared in 1998 and recommended a variety of measures for dealing with the increasing power of the technologies of surveillance. It bluntly advised: “The European Parliament should reject proposals from the United States for making private messages via the global communications network [Internet] accessible to US intelligence agencies.” The report denounced Britain’s role as a double-agent, spying on its own European partners.

He then goes onto describe how the system is used by the NSA and CIA for industrial espionage against European firms. Among the victims of the US’ commercial spying have been Enercon, a German manufacturer of wind generators, Thomson S.A. and Airbus Industrie in France. He also reveals that in 1995
Germany demanded that the United States recall three CIA operatives for their activities in Germany involving economic espionage. The news report stated that the Germans “have long been suspicious of the eavesdropping capabilities of the enormous U.S. radar and communications complex at Bad Aibling, near Munich”, which is in fact an NSA intercept station. “The Americans tell us it is used solely to monitor communications by potential enemies, but how can we be entirely sure that they are not picking up pieces of information that we think should remain completely secret?” asked a senior German official. Japanese officials most likely have been told a similar story by Washington about the more than a dozen signals intelligence bases which Japan has allowed to be located on its territory.

The article also discusses the way the American intelligence services have also been active persuading the manufacturers of encryption software to hand over the keys to the code, and inserting trapdoor programmes in computer software in order to have access to the private data stored on individual computers.

This adds another, very interesting dimension to the current debate about whether Britain should remain in Europe. I’ve blogged about the way membership of the European Union protects us under certain human rights legislation, while the Social Charter guarantees certain minimal rights to European workers. It’s also sobering to find that the EU was concerned about US snooping on its citizens. And this wasn’t done for security, but simply for sheer commercial advantage.

And American technology firms can be extremely predatory. The French found that out to their misfortune when they were busy working on a cure for the HIV virus. They made all their data available free of charge, as they felt it would be immoral to patent such important and potentially life-saving information. Unfortunately, no good deed goes unpunished. An American rival patented the information, and then sued them for infringing their copyright, even though they had not produced the data. This piece of information does not come from a fringe magazine like Lobster, but from New Scientist.

The antics of the American and British surveillance state, and its expansion under Bush, Bliar and Cameron, is a real threat to our liberty. We’re complacent about it at our peril. I doubt this issue will never be raised at the debate about membership of the European Union, but I feel that for sake of our liberty we need to remain inside the EU. The EU has voiced opposition to such increased electronic surveillance, and at the stage I think it’s only from the EU that further concerted opposition can come. It certainly isn’t going to come from our politicos, determined to deprive us of more of our hard-won traditional freedoms under the pretext of saving us from Islamist tyranny.

Guardian and Snowden on Britain Spying on Americans for America: America Angry, but this Not News

October 13, 2013

The Guardian is at the centre of a diplomatic and legal storm over its publication of information leaked by Edward Snowden that Britain was regularly tapping and monitoring Americans’ phone calls and electronic messages on behalf of the American intelligence services. The American constitution forbids the American state from doing this, so the Americans got round this block by getting us to do it for them. This was then one of the revelations leaked by Snowden, which was picked up and printed by the Guardian. The scandal was briefly mentioned by Dan Snow on the Beeb’s satirical news quiz, Have I Got News For You. Snow was of the opinion that it had damaged relations between Britain and America by angering the Americans. This is probably true, but the information itself – that Britain was spying for America on American citizens – isn’t remotely new. It was already available to anyone with a library card, a good bookshop, or a subscription to Lobster, Steamshovel Press or any of the other parapolitical ‘conspiracy’ magazines. Simon Davies’ book, Big Brother: Britain’s Web of Surveillance and the New Technological Order, published by Pan in 1996 states that GCHQ was monitoring telephone lines and sharing this information with the Americans. GCHQ’s main listening station at Menwith Hill in 1994 had 40,000 active telephone lines connected to it, although the Home Secretary had only authorised 871 new wiretaps. As for computer listening systems like PRISM, which monitor telephone lines and record conversations containing a number of key words, those have been around for a very long time. Lobster carried several stories about ECHELON, a similar listening system in the ’80s and ’90s.

The technology even formed the basis for the plot of an episode of the short-lived BBC SF series, Star Cops, in 1986. In the episode ‘Intelligent Listening for Beginners’, Nathan Spring and his band of near-future rozzers are called in to investigate the claim by an Indian computer tycoon that he has developed a computer system that will spy on Anarchist terrorist groups and prevent the kind of cyberterrorist attacks that were responsible for a train crash in the Channel Tunnel. In fact, the Subcontinent’s answer to Steve Jobs has in fact done no such thing. His computer system is an abject failure, and he has himself sabotaged it in his residence on the Moon. The faked worm attack will kill him, and take Spring with him, but will appear to vindicate him by showing that his system has been successful. Spring, however, fortunately is able to shoot the tycoon and make his escape before the computers melt down and the house explodes. Star Cops was short lived and lasted only a single season. Looking back, it was in many respects wildly optimistic. It was set only a decade or so away, in 2026, when the new generation of spaceplanes developed by Martin Marietta had finally made the space age a reality. People were travelling into orbit to work on space stations, and further to laboratories, mines and industrial units on the Moon. There was also a small colony on Mars. Well, here we are nearly three decades hence and this is still very far away. If only! The series was scripted by Chris Boucher, the script editor and writer on the bleak, dystopian SF series, Blake’s 7. Star Cops was based very much on solid scientific fact, or what was believed to be possible at the time. Its predictions are, in many cases, wildly inaccurate. In the series’ future world, the Soviet Union and Communist bloc still existed, and Anarchists, rather than Radical Islam, were responsible for global terrorism. This is apart from the expected breakthrough in mass space travel and commercialisation. The series was entirely right about intelligent listening systems, though.

So, while the American state may be angered by Snowden’s revelations, they aren’t really providing much in the way of new information. What has made the difference is that they were picked up and published by a respected, national newspaper. They were thus made available to a mass public, rather than the few thousand or so, who read books on the intelligence services and the secret state, or the even smaller numbers reading very specialist, niche magazines like Lobster.

For vintage SF fans, here’s the Star Cops’ episode ‘Intelligent Listening for Beginners’.

Part 1

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Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5