Look who’s listening


Among the momentous developments that marked the close of the 20th Century one that received less attention than most was the revelation of a new international spy ring unparalleled in its scope. This operation, known as Echelon, gave participating governments access to all the phone calls, emails,  satellite communications and cell phones around the world. Originally used by the US National Security Agency (NSA) to intercept and process international communications passing via communications satellites, Echelon is just one part of a global surveillance system that is over 50 years old.

Other parts of the system intercept messages from the internet, from undersea cables, from radio transmissions and from secret equipment installed inside embassies. They also use orbiting satellites to monitor signals anywhere on the earth’s surface. The system now includes stations run by Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand as well as those operated by the United States. They form part of an integrated global network using standardised equipment and methods to extract information and intelligence illicitly from millions of messages every day worldwide. Echelon has its limitations. It cannot analyse and extract data from every signal it picks up.

But with suitably programmed systems using dictionaries pre-programmed with keywords it is possible to extract relevant data and send it to subscribing agencies.Each  station maintains its own dictionaries, and each dictionary is maintained by a Dictionary Manager. (Silkworth is the dictionary in use at RAF Menwith, Yorkshire). Data that has been analyzed and found to be of importance is forwarded to the respective government agency where analysts review it.

Once the data has been categorized, it is given a classification: MORAY (secret), SPOKE (very secret), UMBRA (top secret), GAMMA (intercepts from Russia) and DRUID (intercepts sent to non-UKUSA parties). Analysts can view an atlas on Intelink’s home page and simply click on the  country they  desire to access   intelligence information from. So what does all this mean for journalists?The main concern is that they are at risk of being targeted as they frequently use the keywords for the region they are in. It was revealed in the 1990s that one of the dictionaries contained the words Greenpeace and Amnesty.

It is worth remembering that satellite phones and GSM phones continually pinpoint your exact position when they are switched on and connected to the network.Always assume that Echelon is aware of everything that you are doing.

TSCM (Technical Surveillance Counter Measures)

Tempest is a system of specifications which the manufacturers of equipment carrying sensitive data use to minimise the risk of compromise. It is primarily used by governments not private companies. It is impossible to protect your conversations from eavesdroppers without spending a great deal of money; however you can minimise risks.If you want to have a private discussion in a room then start by closing the curtains (lip readers), unplug all telephones and electrical devices in the room (bugs).

Set up a battery powered FM radio between you and the interviewee and tune to a part of the waveband which has no programme just noise. Turn the volume up and the white noise is a good sound masker. Make sure you supply the radio. Outside? Head for a noisy area. Any continuous noise makes it difficult to lock on to your conversation, keep moving and changing your position (lip readers). Keep objects between you and any buildings overlooking your position. Trees and bushes are useful.

Movies give you some idea of what is possible and The Conversation and Enemy of the State starring Gene Hackman were inspired by real life expert Marty Kaiser. One of the industries’ leading experts is James M. Atkinson of the Granite Island Group. See www.tscm.com.