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

ECHELON is a name used in global media and in popular culture to describe a signals intelligence collection and analysis network operated on behalf of the five signatory states to the UKUSA agreement; Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States, known as AUSCANZUKUS.

The system has been reported in a number of public sources. Its capabilities and political implications were investigated by a committee of the European Parliament during 2000 and 2001 with a report published in 2001.

In its report, the European Parliament states 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 evidence 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 and microwave links. The committee further concluded that "the technical capabilities of the system are probably not nearly as extensive as some sections of the media had assumed".


The ability to intercept communications depends on the medium used, be it radio, satellite, microwave, cellular or fibre-optic. During World War II and through the 1950s, high frequency ("short wave") radio was widely used for military and diplomatic communication, and could be intercepted at great distances. 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." Many, if not most reports on ECHELON focus on satellite interception.

The role of satellites in point-to-point voice and data communications has largely been supplanted by fibre optics. As of 2006, 99 percent of the world's long-distance voice and data traffic is carried over optical-fibre cables. The proportion of international communications accounted for by satellite links is said to have decreased substantially over the past few years in Central Europe to amount to between 0.4 and 5%. Even in less developed parts of the world, communications satellites are used largely for point-to-multipoint applications, such as video. Thus the majority of communications cannot be intercepted by earth stations, but only by tapping cables and intercepting radio signals, which is possible only to a limited extent.

One approach is to place intercept equipment at locations where fibre optic communications are switched. For the Internet, much of the switching occurs at a relatively small number of sites. There have been reports of one such intercept site, Room 641A, in the United States. In the past, much Internet traffic was routed through the U.S. and the UK. However this is less allegedly true at present. It has been reported that (as of 2000) 95% of intra-German Internet communications were routed via the DE-CIX Internet Exchange Point in Frankfurt. Thus for a worldwide surveillance network to be comprehensive, either illegal intercept sites would be required on the territory of friendly nations or cooperation of local authorities would be needed. The report to the European Parliament points out that interception of private communications by foreign intelligence services is not necessarily limited to the US or British foreign intelligence services.

U.S. intelligence maintains liaison relationships with countries all over the world.


UKUSA Community
Map of UKUSA Community countries with Ireland

New Zealand
United Kingdom
United States of America

The UKUSA intelligence community is assessed by the European Parliament to include the Signals Intelligence organizations of each of the member states viz United States National Security Agency, United Kingdom Government Communications Headquarters, Canada Communications Security Establishment, Australia Defence Signals Directorate and New Zealand Government Communications Security Bureau. The EP report concludes that it seems likely that ECHELON is a method of sorting captured signal traffic, rather than a comprehensive analysis tool.

While details of methods and capabilities are highly sensitive and protected by special laws (e.g. 18 USC 798), gathering signals intelligence ( SIGINT) is an acknowledged mission of the U.S. National Security Agency. As of August 2006, their web site had a FAQ page on the topic, which states:

NSA/CSS’s Signal Intelligence mission is to intercept and analyze foreign adversaries' communications signals, many of which are protected by codes and other complex countermeasures. We collect, process, and disseminate intelligence reports on foreign intelligence targets in response to intelligence requirements set at the highest levels of government. ... Foreign intelligence means information relating to the capabilities, intentions, and activities of foreign powers, organizations or persons.


Reportedly created to monitor the military and diplomatic communications of the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc allies during the Cold War in the early sixties, today ECHELON is believed to search also for hints of terrorist plots, drug-dealers' plans, and political and diplomatic intelligence. But some critics, including the European Union committee that commissioned the EU report, claim the system is also being used for large-scale commercial theft, inter-nation economic espionage and invasion of privacy.

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. Examples include the gear-less wind turbine technology designed by the German firm Enercon and the speech technology developed by the Belgian firm Lernout & Hauspie. An article in the Baltimore Sun reported in 1995 that aerospace company Airbus lost a $6 billion contract with Saudi Arabia in 1994 after the NSA reported that Airbus officials had been bribing Saudi officials to secure the contract.

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.

The proposed U.S.-only " Total Information Awareness" program relied on technology similar to that supposedly used by ECHELON, and is believed to have been intended to integrate the extensive sources it is legally permitted to survey domestically with the "taps" already supposedly compiled by ECHELON. It was canceled by the U.S. Congress in 2004. It was later discovered in 2005 that the CIA was developing a data-mining program with similar aims called " Tangram." A USAF procurement document stated that the system will build on work by the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies "developing systems, tools and algorithms to detect international terrorist activities and planned events" which have developed "methods of ... efficiently searching large data stores for evidence of known (terrorist) behaviors."

It has been alleged that in 2002 the Bush Administration extended the ECHELON program to domestic surveillance.


According to its web site the US NSA is "a high technology organization... on the frontiers of communications and data processing." In 2006, the Baltimore Sun reported that the NSA was at risk of electrical overload, because of insufficient internal electrical infrastructure at Fort Meade to support the amount of computer equipment being installed.

While there are occasional stories speculating on the types of computers involved, Jonathan Meier, in his biography, has stated of his time at the NSA that:

"Conjecture and speculation were rampant on the [ECHELON] projects, even internally. Truthfully, very few individuals were privy to the logistics involved."

At least one company, Narus, is publicly selling systems for mass surveillance of Internet traffic and one of its systems was apparently installed in 2003 in Room 641A, allegedly an intercept station run by AT&T on behalf of the NSA.

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 are claimed to be large radio dishes between 20 and 100 meters across, parked in geostationary orbits. The original purpose of the network was to monitor the telemetry from 1970s Soviet weapons, air defense radar, communications satellites and ground based microwave communications. The network is still operational and coordinated by US, British and Australian intelligence communities.

This transactional-data-dragnet amounts to a rebuilding of the U.S. Defense Department's Total Information Awareness program, which promised to do extensive warrantless data-mining to identify "information signatures" that could identify criminals. After a public outcry, the department renamed it Terrorism Information Awareness; Congress eliminated funding for it in September, 2003.


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." The U.S. intelligence community uses many code names. See, for example, CIA cryptonym.

Margaret Newsham claims that she worked on the configuration and installation of some of the software that makes up the ECHELON system while employed at Lockheed Martin, for whom she worked from 1974 to 1984 in Sunnyvale, California, USA and in Menwith Hill, England. 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 would intercept 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.

Ground stations

Some of the ground stations suspected of belonging to or participating in the ECHELON network include:

Likely satellite intercept stations

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

  • Hong Kong (since closed)
  • Australian Defence Satellite Communications Station ( Geraldton, Western Australia)
  • Menwith Hill (Yorkshire, UK) Map
  • Misawa Air Base (Japan)
  • GCHQ Bude ( Cornwall, UK)
  • Pine Gap ( Northern Territory, Australia - close to Alice Springs) Map
  • Sugar Grove (West Virginia, US)
  • Yakima Training Centre ( Washington, US) Map
  • GCSB Waihopai (New Zealand)
  • Troodos, Mt. Olympus peak (Cyprus)

Possible satellite intercept stations

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

  • Ayios Nikolaos (Cyprus - UK)
  • Bad Aibling (Germany - US) - moved to Griesheim in 2004
  • Buckley Air Force Base ( Colorado, US)
  • Fort Gordon ( Georgia, US)
  • Guam (Pacific Ocean, US)
  • Kunia ( Hawaii, US)
  • Leitrim (south of Ottawa, Canada)
  • Medina Annex ( Texas, US)

Former ground stations

  • Kabkan (Iran - US) - closed in 1979
  • Nurrungar ( South Australia, Australia - south of Woomera, South Australia) - closed in 1999
  • Sidi Yahia central Morocco - closed 1976
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