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A radome at RAF Menwith Hill, a site with satellite downlink capabilities believed to be used by ECHELON.

RAF Menwith Hill

Misawa Air Base Security Operations Center (MSOC)

ECHELON, originally a code-name, is now used in global media and in popular culture to describe a signals intelligence (SIGINT) collection and analysis network operated on behalf of the five signatory states to the UKUSA Security Agreement[1] (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States, referred to by a number of abbreviations, including AUSCANNZUKUS[1] and Five Eyes).[2][3][4] It has also been described as the only software system which controls the download and dissemination of the intercept of commercial satellite trunk communications.[5] It was created to monitor the military and diplomatic communications of the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc allies during the Cold War in the early 1960s. By the end of the 20th century, the system referred to as "ECHELON" had evolved beyond its military/diplomatic origins, to also become "... a global system for the interception of private and commercial communications."[6]

The system has been reported in a number of public sources. One of the earliest reports to describe the program, code-named "ECHELON," was the 1988 article, "Somebody's listening" by Duncan Campbell in the New Statesman.[7] The program's capabilities and political implications were investigated by a committee of the European Parliament during 2000 and 2001 with a report published in 2001,[6] and by author James Bamford in his books on the National Security Agency of the United States.[5] The European Parliament stated in its report that the term ECHELON is used in a number of contexts, but that the evidence presented indicates that it was the name for a signals intelligence collection system. The report concludes that, on the basis of information presented, ECHELON was capable of interception and content inspection of telephone calls, fax, e-mail and other data traffic globally through the interception of communication bearers including satellite transmission, public switched telephone networks (which once carried most Internet traffic) and microwave links.[6]

Bamford describes the system as the software controlling the collection and distribution of civilian telecommunications traffic conveyed using communication satellites, with the collection being undertaken by ground stations located in the footprint of the downlink leg.


The UKUSA intelligence community was assessed by the European Parliament (EP) in 2000 to include the signals intelligence agencies of each of the member states:

The EP report concluded that it seemed likely that ECHELON is a method of sorting captured signal traffic, rather than a comprehensive analysis tool.[6]


The ability to intercept communications depends on the medium used, be it radio, satellite, microwave, cellular or fiber-optic.[6] During World War II and through the 1950s, high frequency ("short wave") radio was widely used for military and diplomatic communication,[8] and could be intercepted at great distances.[6] The rise of geostationary communications satellites in the 1960s presented new possibilities for intercepting international communications. The report to the European Parliament of 2001 states: "If UKUSA states operate listening stations in the relevant regions of the earth, in principle they can intercept all telephone, fax and data traffic transmitted via such satellites."[6]

The role of satellites in point-to-point voice and data communications has largely been supplanted by fiber optics; in 2006, 99% of the world's long-distance voice and data traffic was carried over optical-fiber.[9] The proportion of international communications accounted for by satellite links is said to have decreased substantially over the past few years[when?] in Central Europe to an amount between 0.4% and 5%.[6] Even in less-developed parts of the world, communications satellites are used largely for point-to-multipoint applications, such as video.[10] Thus, the majority of communications can no longer be intercepted by earth stations; they can only be collected by tapping cables and intercepting line-of-sight microwave signals, which is possible only to a limited extent.[6]

One method of interception is to place equipment at locations where fiber optic communications are switched. For the Internet, much of the switching occurs at relatively few sites. There have been reports of one such intercept site, Room 641A, in the United States. In the past[when?] much Internet traffic was routed through the U.S. and the UK, but this has changed; for example, in 2000, 95% of intra-German Internet communications was routed via the DE-CIX Internet exchange point in Frankfurt.[6] A comprehensive worldwide surveillance network is possible only if clandestine intercept sites are installed in the territory of friendly nations, and/or if local authorities cooperate. The report to the European Parliament points out that interception of private communications by foreign intelligence services is not necessarily limited to the U.S. or British foreign intelligence services.[6]

Most reports on ECHELON focus on satellite interception; testimony before the European Parliament indicated that separate but similar UK-US systems are in place to monitor communication through undersea cables, microwave transmissions and other lines.[11] The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) defines the ECHELON system as follows:

ECHELON is a term associated with a global network of computers that automatically search through millions of intercepted messages for pre-programmed keywords or fax, telex and e-mail addresses. Every word of every message in the frequencies and channels selected at a station is automatically searched. The processors in the network are known as the ECHELON Dictionaries. ECHELON connects all these computers and allows the individual stations to function as distributed elements an integrated system. An ECHELON station's Dictionary contains not only its parent agency's chosen keywords, but also lists for each of the other four agencies in the UKUSA system [ NSA, GCHQ, DSD, GCSB and CSE ]

— Federation of American Scientists[12]


Intelligence monitoring of citizens, and their communications, in the area covered by the AUSCANNZUKUS security agreement has caused concern. British journalist Duncan Campbell and New Zealand journalist Nicky Hager asserted in the 1990s that the United States was exploiting ECHELON traffic for industrial espionage, rather than military and diplomatic purposes.[11] Examples alleged by the journalists include the gear-less wind turbine technology designed by the German firm Enercon[6][13] and the speech technology developed by the Belgian firm Lernout & Hauspie.[14] In 2001, the Temporary Committee on the ECHELON Interception System recommended to the European Parliament that citizens of member states routinely use cryptography in their communications to protect their privacy, because economic espionage with ECHELON has been conducted by the US intelligence agencies.[6]

Bamford provides an alternative view, highlighting that legislation prohibits the use of intercepted communications for commercial purposes, although he does not elaborate on how intercepted communications are used as part of an all-source intelligence process. In its report, the committee of the European Parliament stated categorically that the Echelon network was being used to intercept not only military communications, but also private and business ones. In its epigraph to the report, the parliamentary committee quoted Juvenal, “Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes.” (“But who will watch the watchers”).[6] Bamford, in the Guardian in May, 2001, warned that if Echelon were to continue unchecked, it could become a “cyber secret police, without courts, juries, or the right to a defence.”[15]

Examples of political espionage

Notable examples of members of the "Five Eyes" engaging in political espionage:

  • On behalf of the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the Security Intelligence Service of Canada spied on two British cabinet ministers in 1983.[16]
  • The U.S. National Security Agency spied on and intercepted the phone calls of Princess Diana right until she died in a Paris car crash with Dodi Fayed in 1997. The NSA currently holds 1,056 pages of classified information about Princess Diana, which cannot be released to the public because any disclosure will cause "exceptionally grave damage" to the national security of the United States.[17]
  • U.K. agents monitored the conversations of the 7th Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan[18][19]
  • U.S. agents gathered "detailed biometric information" on the 8th Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon[20][21]

Examples of industrial espionage

Notable examples of members of the "Five Eyes" engaging in industrial espionage:

  • In the early 1990s, the U.S. National Security Agency intercepted the communications between the European aerospace company Airbus and the Saudi Arabian national airline. In 1994, Airbus lost a $6 billion contract with Saudi Arabia after the NSA, acting as a whistleblower, reported that Airbus officials had been bribing Saudi officials to secure the contract.[22] As a result, the American aerospace company McDonnell Douglas (now part of Boeing) won the multi-billion dollar contract instead of Airbus.[23]
  • The American defense contractor Raytheon won a US$1.3 billion contract with the Government of Brazil to monitor the Amazon rainforest after the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), acting as a whistleblower, reported that Raytheon's French competitor Thomson-Alcatel had been paying bribes to get the contract.[24]
  • In order to boost America's domestic automobile industry, the CIA eavesdropped on the conversations of the employees of Japanese car manufacturers Toyota and Nissan.[25]
  • In order to "enable better exploitation" of the infrastructure of the telecoms provider Belgacom, the British intelligence agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) hacked Belgacom's network with the help of the NSA.[26]

On March 17, 2000, the former CIA director James Woolsey, Jr. defended his agency's surveillance activities regarding "ECHELON and U.S. spying on European industries". Writing in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, Woolsey argued that "we (the CIA) have spied on you (the Europeans) because you bribe".[27]


According to its website, the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) is "a high technology organization ... on the frontiers of communications and data processing". In 1999 the Australian Senate Joint Standing Committee on Treaties was told by Professor Desmond Ball that the Pine Gap facility was used as a ground station for a satellite-based interception network. The satellites were said to be large radio dishes between 20 and 100 meters in diameter in geostationary orbits.[citation needed] The original purpose of the network was to monitor the telemetry from 1970s Soviet weapons, air defence radar, communications satellites and ground based microwave communications.[28]


The European Parliament's Temporary Committee on the ECHELON Interception System stated: "It seems likely, in view of the evidence and the consistent pattern of statements from a very wide range of individuals and organisations, including American sources, that its name is in fact ECHELON, although this is a relatively minor detail."[6] The U.S. intelligence community uses many code names (see, for example, CIA cryptonym).

Former NSA employee Margaret Newsham claims that she worked on the configuration and installation of software that makes up the ECHELON system while employed at Lockheed Martin, for whom she worked from 1974 to 1984 in Sunnyvale, California, US, and in Menwith Hill, England, UK.[29] At that time, according to Newsham, the code name ECHELON was NSA's term for the computer network itself. Lockheed called it P415. The software programs were called SILKWORTH and SIRE. A satellite named VORTEX intercepted communications. An image available on the internet of a fragment apparently torn from a job description shows Echelon listed along with several other code names.[30]

Ground stations

The 2001 European Parliamentary (EP) report[6] lists several ground stations as possibly belonging to, or participating in, the ECHELON network. These include:

Likely satellite intercept stations

The following stations are listed in the EP report (p. 54 ff) as likely to have, or to have had, a role in intercepting transmissions from telecommunications satellites:

Other potentially related stations

The following stations are listed in the EP report (p. 57 ff) as ones whose roles "cannot be clearly established":

In popular culture

The television series Alias made recurring references to ECHELON throughout its run.

Echelon Conspiracy, inspired by the surveillance system ECHELON, is a 2009 action thriller film directed by Greg Marcks. It tells the story of Max Peterson (Shane West), an American computer specialist who attempts to uncover a secret plot to turn the world into a global police state. After being chased down by NSA agent Raymond Burke (Martin Sheen), Peterson decides to flee to Moscow.

The video game series Splinter Cellalso draws inspiration from this. The series features the protagonist, Sam Fisher, a trained operative belonging to a fictional branch of the National Security Agency called 3rd Echelon (later, in Splinter Cell Blacklist, the unit is renamed to Fourth Echelon).

See also

Notes and references

  1. 1.0 1.1 Given the 5 dialects that use the terms, UKUSA can be pronounced from "You-Q-SA" to "Oo-Coo-SA", AUSCANNZUKUS can be pronounced from "Oz-Can-Zuke-Us" to "Orse-Can-Zoo-Cuss".
    From Talk:UKUSA Agreement: Per documents officially released by both the Government Communications Headquarters and the National Security Agency, this agreement is referred to as the UKUSA Agreement. This name is subsequently used by media sources reporting on the story, as written in new references used for the article. The NSA press release provides a pronunciation guide, indicating that "UKUSA" should not be read as two separate entities. (The National Archives) (National Security Agency)
  2. "UK 'biggest spy' among the Five Eyes". News Corp Australia. Retrieved 19 October 2013. 
  3. Google booksEchelon by John O'Neill
  4. "AUSCANNZUKUS Information Portal". Retrieved 1 February 2010. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 Bamford, James; Body of Secrets, Anchor, ISBN 0-385-49908-6; 2002
  6. 6.00 6.01 6.02 6.03 6.04 6.05 6.06 6.07 6.08 6.09 6.10 6.11 6.12 6.13 6.14 6.15 Schmid, Gerhard (11 July 2001). "On the existence of a global system for the interception of private and commercial communications (ECHELON interception system), (2001/2098(INI))" (pdf – 194 pages). European Parliament: Temporary Committee on the ECHELON Interception System. Retrieved 5 January 2013. 
  7. Campbell, Duncan (12 August 1988). "Somebody's Listening". Archived from the original on 2007-01-03. Retrieved 16 September 2013. 
  8. The Codebreakers, Ch. 10, 11
  9. "NSA eavesdropping: How it might work". CNET Archived from the original on 15 July 2012. Retrieved 27 August 2006. 
  10. "Commercial Geostationary Satellite Transponder Markets for Latin America : Market Research Report". Retrieved 27 August 2006. 
  11. 11.0 11.1 For example: "Nicky Hager Appearance before the Euro ean Parliament ECHELON Committee". April 2001. Archived from the original on 21 October 2001. Retrieved 2 July 2006. 
  12. "ECHELON". Federation of American Scientists. October 21, 2010. 
  13. Die Zeit: 40/1999 "Verrat unter Freunden" ("Treachery among friends", German), available at
  14. "Amerikanen maakten met Echelon L&H kapot". 30 March 2002. Retrieved 28 March 2008.  (Google's translation of the article into English).
  15. Bustillos, Maria (June 9, 2013). "Our reflection in the N.S.A.'s PRISM. The New Yorker. Retrieved: 2013-10-12.
  16. "Thatcher 'spied on ministers'". BBC. 25 February 2000. 
  17. Vernon Loeb (December 12, 1998). "NSA Admits to Spying on Princess Diana". The Washington Post. 
  18. "UK 'spied on UN's Kofi Annan'". BBC. Retrieved 21 September 2013. 
  19. PATRICK E. TYLER. "Ex-Minister Says British Spies Bugged Kofi Annan’s Office". The New York Times. Retrieved 21 September 2013. 
  20. "US diplomats spied on UN leadership". The Guardian. Retrieved 27 August 2013. 
  21. Marcel Rosenbach and Holger Stark. "Diplomats or Spooks? How US Diplomats Were Told to Spy on UN and Ban Ki-Moon". Der Spiegel. Retrieved 27 August 2013. 
  22. "Echelon: Big brother without a cause". BBC News. 6 July 2000. Retrieved 27 August 2006. 
  23. "Airbus's secret past". The Economist. Retrieved 15 October 2013. 
  24. "Big Surveillance Project For the Amazon Jungle Teeters Over Scandals". The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 15 October 2013. 
  25. DAVID E. SANGER and TIM WEINER. "Emerging Role For the C.I.A.: Economic Spy". The New York Times. Retrieved 15 October 2013. 
  26. "Belgacom Attack: Britain's GCHQ Hacked Belgian Telecoms Firm". Der Spiegel. Retrieved 15 October 2013. 
  27. R. James Woolsey (March 17, 2000). "Why We Spy on Our Allies". The Wall Street Journal. 
  28. Pine Gap, Official Committee Hansard, Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, 9 August 1999. Commonwealth of Australia.
  29. Elkjær, Bo; Kenan Seeberg (17 November 1999). "ECHELON Was My Baby". Ekstra Bladet. Archived from the original on 2 Mar 2000. Retrieved 17 May 2006.  “Unfortunately, I can’t tell you all my duties. I am still bound by professional secrecy, and I would hate to go to prison or get involved in any trouble, if you know what I mean. In general, I can tell you that I was responsible for compiling the various systems and programs, configuring the whole thing and making it operational on mainframes"; "Margaret Newsham worked for the NSA through her employment at Ford and Lockheed from 1974 to 1984. In 1977 and 1978 Newsham was stationed at the largest listening post in the world at Menwith Hill, England ... Ekstra Bladet has Margaret Newsham's stationing orders from the US Department of Defense. She possessed the high security classification TOP SECRET CRYPTO."
  30. "Names of ECHELON associated projects – image without any context".  in "Interception Capabilities 2000 – PART 1". 18 December 2003. 
  31. Le Monde Diplomatique, September 2010
  32. According to a statement by Terence Dudlee, the speaker of the US Navy in London, in an interview to the German HR (Hessischer Rundfunk)
    US-Armee lauscht von Darmstadt aus (German), hr online, 1 October 2004


  • Aldrich, Richard J.; GCHQ: The Uncensored Story of Britain's Most Secret Intelligence Agency, HarperCollins, July 2010. ISBN 978-0-00-727847-3
  • Bamford, James; The Puzzle Palace, Penguin, ISBN 0-14-006748-5; 1983
  • Bamford, James; The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America, Doubleday, ISBN 0-385-52132-4; 2008
  • Hager, Nicky; Secret Power, New Zealand's Role in the International Spy Network; Craig Potton Publishing, Nelson, NZ; ISBN 0-908802-35-8; 1996
  • Keefe, Patrick Radden Chatter: dispatches from the secret world of global eavesdropping; Random House Publishing, New York, NY; ISBN 1-4000-6034-6; 2005

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