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Hearing Without Listening

Despite its most recent, catastrophic lapses, the United States has a long and distinguished history of successfully using advanced information-gathering and analysis tools against its enemies. The Signals Intelligence Section, the forerunner of today’s National Security Agency, came into being in World War II, when the United States broke the Japanese military code known as Purple and discovered plans to invade Midway Island. The NSA’s early forays in cryptography contributed to the development of the first supercomputers and other information technologies. In his book The Wizards of Langley: Inside the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology, National Security Archive senior fellow Jeffrey T. Richelson published more than 40 declassified documents that trace the CIA’s exploitation of science and technology for the purposes of intelligence gathering. “From the early 1950s to the present, technology has played an essential part in analysis,” he says.

The granddaddy of today’s governmental electronic surveillance is Echelon, the National Security Agency’s infamous, yet officially unacknowledged, global surveillance network. Said to be the most comprehensive and sophisticated signals intelligence setup in existence, Echelon reportedly has the capability to monitor every communication transmitted by satellite outside of U.S. borders-by some counts, three billion telephone calls, e-mail messages, faxes and broadcasts daily. Technically, Echelon technology could monitor domestic communications too, though that is prohibited under U.S. law.

According to a European Parliament report released in September, Echelon collects information through a complex web of radio antennae at listening stations across the planet. Other sources claim that one listening station in particular, at Menwith Hill in England, operated by U.S. and British intelligence services, is placed in the most convenient spot to tap transatlantic communications cables as well. Investigations cited by the American Civil Liberties Union and others report that Echelon rakes these immense volumes of data through “dictionary” software that operates on a vast computer network hosted by intelligence agencies from five countries-the United States, Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. The dictionary program flags messages containing any of a set of predetermined keywords, such as “bomb” or “President Bush.” The words are rumored to be changed on a regular basis.

How the actual process of data sifting works remains a mystery. National security restrictions prohibit anyone from speaking publicly about the program. Quips one source who has followed the technology, “Anyone who knows about it won’t talk about it, and anyone who talks about it doesn’t really know about it.” Some experts suspect, however, that Echelon’s data processing is based on a variety of technologies in use in the commercial world today, including speech recognition and word pattern finding. “Word pattern recognition is nothing new,” says Winn Schwartau, a security consultant in Seminole, FL, and the author of Information Warfare and Cybershock. “We’ve been using that sort of stuff for years. But if you look at how advanced the searching abilities for the average person have become, I can only imagine the type of stuff that government security agencies have in operation.”

According to Schwartau and others, the ability to sort through billions of messages and divine anything useful encompasses a number of techniques. Speech recognition systems and optical character readers convert spoken words (from phone conversations) and printed text (as from intercepted faxes) into catalogued and searchable digital data. Language translation software turns many of the world’s spoken tongues into the English that the U.S. intelligence community prefers. Data-mining software searches volumes of data and establishes relationships among them by finding similarities and patterns.

Echelon has supposedly been using techniques like these to churn data into knowledge about foreign governments, corporations and even specific individuals since the 1970s. Subjects of surveillance are reported to have even included the likes of Princess Diana, whose work eliminating land mines ran counter to U.S. policy. And in the months leading up to September 11, 2001, according to reports from the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, snippets produced by Echelon intimated that “a big operation” was in place by terrorists seeking to destroy “American targets.” Other information collected may in hindsight be pieced together to divine a much clearer picture of the operation. Unfortunately, things did not come together in time to warn of the attacks.

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