The NSA is listening

by Timothy Goodness

The National Security Agency, the NSA, admits to being the worlds largest surveillance organization. Indeed, until recently they even bragged about it on their web site!

They are also the worlds largest employer of mathematicians and linguists. The level of technology that is available today has been both an aid, and a hindrance to their operations. Simply put, not only does this technology make it easier to gather information, it also gives virtually anyone who wants it the ability to encrypt, filter, and scramble information. It is truly a double-edged sword, one the NSA may yet be skewered on.

Echelon, the world's most advanced spying system, is but one of the NSA's toys. Its predecessor was the infamous Project 415. Echelon was born of the government's frustration in dealing with computer encryption programs of ever increasing sophistication. Now your probably thinking, great we'll know our advisories every move! Echelon, however, was not developed and deployed with only our advisories in mind. It's primary function, as is the NSA's, is to intercept all communications, especially civilian. Telephone, e-mail, fax even radio, if it can be transmitted and received, it can be eavesdropped on, and is by the NSA.

The first question on this issue is naturally domestic surveillance regulations. This is a valid question, unfortunately, it is a problem that has been easily overcome by the NSA through the use of liaison officers, who are simply spies from allied nations such as England. With them, the NSA is able to bypass domestic surveillance laws. That's right, they simply use foreign spies to review US domestic communications. When a liaison officer is fed information through the systems automatic forwarding program, he simply gives it back to a NSA official. The NSA now has the evidence needed to acquire the proper clearance for further surveillance, thanks to a foreign spy. It's even rumored that the NSA has its own court room for the approval of such activities.

How the forwarding of information to be scrutinized is decided works on key, or trigger words. Like "bomb", or "assassinate." The system automatically pulls these transmissions for closer observations. After the transmission is analyzed it is then determined what, if any, surveillance should be carried out. As you may have imagined the system is not without it's flaws. Not long ago the NSA actually admitted to monitoring the communications of a family simply because the mother had told a friend in a telephone conversation that her child had "bombed" in a "school" play.

Moreover, there has been controversy on the systems abilities, and deployment since it's inception. Some of the very allies who not only give the United States spies to monitor domestic communications, and benefit from it's superior surveillance capabilities, are questioning the use of that superior ability.

One such issue is eavesdropping for the benefit of American business in regards to their foreign competitors. The Japanese newspaper, The Nikkei English News reported of several such cases on September 21, 1998. One case even involved companies that are household names. The Nikkei English News claimed that negotiations between Japans NEC Corporation, and the Indonesian Government for the purchase of telecommunications equipment was eavesdropped on by the NSA. The United States Government latter used the information to pressure Indonesia to award half the contracts to AT&T. Further examples of the NSA using Echelon to help American companies was reported in The Baltimore Sun on September 19, 1998.

Along with the issues of assisting American companies with it's ability to eavesdrop, the NSA's tactics were also referred to as a "powerful threat to civil liberties in Europe," by the European Parliament. This conclusion was made based on the fact that all e-mail, telephone and fax transmissions are intercepted by the NSA.

And it doesn't stop there! On May 29, 2001 the BBC News reported that the Euro-MPs, who had been studying Echelon at the time of the article for over a year. Were concerned that "the Echelon network stretched so far that the UK's involvement could constitute a breach of human rights." The Euro-MPs study did indeed conclude that Echelon "is reading millions of e-mails and faxes everyday by ordinary people." The Euro-MPs advised that since ordinary people and corporations are now being spied on, they should routinely encode their e-mails if they want them to remain private.

Unfortunately, there is an overwhelming amount of evidence that shows such precautions are of little help. Perhaps the best known example of this is the book "Secret Power", by Nicky Hager. Secret Power actually came about by the sharing of information obtained by eavesdropping and the reading of electronic information, with Hager by some employees of New Zealand's Government Communications Security Bureau, the New Zealand version of the NSA (only on a much smaller budget with far less prowess). It is commonly believed that much of this information was indeed encoded.

There is also the issue of whether or not the NSA actually pursues the proper channels to conduct surveillance once it is believed there is a threat. It's hard to imagine anyone giving the green light to the monitoring of a families communications based on a telephone conversation involving a mother saying her child bombed in a school play. This point is only multiplied by the fact the trigger words, bomb and school must have been reviewed in their original context by a real live person. A person one would hope had the common sense to see the meaning of the conversation. Or is this just simply evidence that the Echelon system is much more capable than anyone dare assume?

Does this system use trigger words and phrases to do more than forward a communication that may, or may not contain a threat? Could Echelon also be capable of automatically turning on or starting the surveillance process? This would of course be done with no authorization. It goes without saying such a system would work without the aid of any discrimination. It would simply analyze, calculate, and follow it's programming. A cold electronic "mind", if you will, deciding who should or shouldn't be spied on. The very idea goes beyond Orwell. No, it's much colder than even that. Rather, it smacks of a Terminator movie.

While this idea may be anything other than fact, one thing is certain: the NSA is indeed listening. With today's advanced technology the days of having to break into a person's home, or business to plant listening devices are over. It can all now be done through the cold near silent strokes of the keyboard. With a typed command or two, all of your electronic "friends," your phone, your fax, your computer, become snitches telling anyone with the technology to hear everything you say or write. Individuals with scanners can listen to your cell phone conversations. Scores of government agencies, like the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) monitor the internet, bank transactions and commercial databases. Marketing corporations follow you on the internet by tracking your "cookies" and through hidden programming that dials "home" every time you go on line. And at the top of the electronic heap is the NSA, listening with the most advanced spying system the world has ever known, Echelon. Orwell's Big Brother must be green with envy.