ECHELON and the NSA
D. C. Webb
Leeds Metropolitan University, UK
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Communication via electronic systems such as telephones, faxes, e-mail, computers, etc., has enormously increased
the volume and ease with which people and institutions can exchange messages and information. However, the as-
sociated technologies have also enabled the introduction of new sophisticated concepts and methods in interception
and analysis for intelligence gatherers. One such method has been dubbed ECHELON and is used by which the
United States and its partners in a worldwide intelligence alliance to intercept and analyse messages transmitted
electronically from anywhere on Earth. The National Security Agency (NSA), based at Fort Mead in Maryland, is
the US organisation most intimately involved in the operation of this covert surveillance system. This is the story of
the methods developed and the institutions that adopt them and the debates and arguments that have accompanied
their use from domestic surveillance to international commercial and political espionage.
The ECHELON system is widely accepted to be the
most pervasive and powerful electronic intelligence
gathering system in the world. It was developed and is
operated on behalf of the United States and its partners
(the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and New
Zealand) in an intelligence alliance known as UKUSA.
The system involves the automatic selection of inter-
cepted electronic messages from target lists using a
computer-based system known as DICTIONARY.
Those messages, which include specific combina-
tions of names, dates, places, and subjects, matching
particular criteria are sent for further processing by
analysts at Fort Mead, Maryland—the Headquarters
of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA). The
messages can be intercepted at ground-based stations
that may link directly into land lin