Project Echelon
A Real X-File
by Mark Liberator (e-mail: [May 5th, 2000]

     If you have ever been a fan of science fiction, then you have to know about the highly controversial project known as Echelon. In order to protect citizens from terrorists and destructive anarchists, telephone lines and other transmissions are being tapped by government agencies.

     On the surface, one would not normally think twice about allowing our government the right to snoop on these harmful individuals and groups, but the premise leads to an interesting dose of sci-fi that is frightening and real. This possible noble desire to catch terrorists before they carry out their evil deeds has many huge snags that all of us should guard ourselves against.

     A machine is being used to scan phone lines that are routinely used for faxes, e-mails, Internet chats and long-distance telephone calls. Even pager signals and satellite transmissions fall victim to Project Echelon. This enormous flow of information is being sorted, in real time, for keywords. Words like ‘bomb,’ ‘kill’ and ‘militia’ are prime candidates for this sifter.

“It has been theorized that Project Echelon was created to provide a backdoor to constitutional rights here in the United States.”
     It is possible that this machine might intercept a friendly e-mail sent to a friend describing the newest Schwarzenegger film, which could trigger a response. Will Big Brother come crashing through the door of a person who is participating in online role-playing? Who knows? The possibilities are endless and can scare the pants off of the most peaceful rationalist.

     It has been theorized that Project Echelon was created to provide a backdoor to constitutional rights here in the United States. Other agencies outside of the United States are enlisted to carry out Project Echelon and then report back to the National Security Agency to circumvent the fourth amendment, which states:

     The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
     As the amendment clearly states, searching one’s belongings requires a procedure that must list probably cause. Indiscriminately searching phone lines for keywords and phrases hardly measures up to the letter or spirit of the law and should therefore cause us to reflect appropriately on this intrusion.

     One may argue that public comments are not protected by the fourth amendment. Many people would agree. However, e-mailing, faxing and 1-to-1 chatting is without question private forms of communication.

     Sure there are people who are willing to give up freedom after freedom in the name of safety, but they must not have read Orwell’s 1984. If they had, these same people would realize what governments are capable of doing, given they are allowed to run unchecked and healthy balances are not preserved.

     Our government has lasted as long as it has due to the rigorous checks and balances that exist. The NSA, which it has yet to formally acknowledge Project Echelon, has free reign on this mission. Who or what is watching the people who are watching us? This cloak and dagger atmosphere is worthy of an X-File episode. It would be very entertaining, even though the ramifications are very disturbing.

     CNN’s Bill Wallace reported:

     Project Echelon's equipment can process 1 million message inputs every 30 minutes, according to a series of reports commissioned by the Scientific and Technological Options Assessment program [STOA], a research wing of the European Parliament.

     The STOA studies found that the system filters intercepted material so minutely that only 10 inputs out of 1 million are passed along for detailed analysis -- which is likely a second level of software filtering; even fewer messages reach live analysts.

“When the day comes that we need to worry about our privacy -- and that day has come -- we should be very afraid.”
     No matter what amount of information is being scanned, it is uncomfortable knowing that any amount of information is being searched illegally.

     This security paranoia has the government doing strange things that not only have an impact on our freedoms, but on our pocketbooks. The U.S. government has forced phone companies to open up their digital transmissions to wiretapping. This has cost phone companies billions of dollars, which phone users are still making monthly contributions to pay off this cost.

     Even Internet Service Providers may soon have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in set-up costs and tens of thousands of dollars a year to maintain wiretapping systems. It is clear that this perceived security threat is getting well out of hand.

     Until this infringement on our rights as United States citizens can be corrected, there are measures that can be taken to ensure a high degree of privacy. Encrypting e-mail allows users to garble their messages. Using services like Anonymizer and Net Zero offer untraceable e-mail services.

     When the day comes that we need to worry about our privacy -- and that day has come -- we should be very afraid. It is also no surprise to those who have been following gun-grabbing efforts that an attack on privacy was right around the corner. What’s next, freedom of speech?

     For now we can say almost anything, but it is absolutely clear that our governments want to know exactly what we say for their own protective purposes.

  • ABCNEWS: Spies Like Us (May 2nd, 2000)
  • CNN: Feds May be Reading Your Mail (April 26th, 2000)
  • Washington Post: Where We Can't Snoop (April 17th, 2000)
  • Yahoo! Directory: Government:Intelligence:Echelon_Network

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