When Edward Snowden disclosed the vast conspiracy of a multinational surveillance apparatus, it was vindication for Duncan Campbell who spent decades uncovering one of the biggest facets of government overreach, Project ECHELON.
And though it took nearly a lifetime to attain that justification, Campbell turned one of the oldest conspiracies into veritable fact: someone is always listening.
What Is Echelon?
Shortly after WWII, five of the world’s major powers – the U.S., U.K., Australia, New Zealand, and Canada – signed onto a joint surveillance program in the aftermath of the Allies cracking the Germany “Enigma” and Japanese “Purple” codes.
Understanding the importance of intercepting and monitoring signals intelligence, or SIGINT, these five countries, known as the Five Eyes, signed onto the UKUSA agreement, which divvied up segments of the world for each country to monitor.
Signals intelligence monitors all signals received from electronic communications, including radio, radar, telemetry, and just about any type of broadcasted signal.
The advent of satellite technology in the late 50s matched with Cold War paranoia led to a rapid expansion of the program, indiscriminately monitoring all communication signals worldwide.
Project P-415, nicknamed ECHELON, became the dragnet surveillance program between the five nations, though it was controlled entirely by the National Security Agency – the American intelligence branch operating under the Department of Defense.
The U.K.’s intelligence agency, the Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, became the secondary arm of the ECHELON program.
Through ECHELON, billions of satellite communications were, and continue to be, intercepted and stored in facilities around the world, before being sifted through by computer algorithms searching for keywords that raise red flags.
The technology is also able to target individuals using not just phone numbers, but also voice recognition software.
The program’s capabilities allow it to target almost anyone on the planet including world leaders, businesses, and private individuals.
Despite this fact, it has, more often than not, failed its ostensible job of preventing major acts of terrorism.
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Where Was ECHELON?
Though there are a number of ECHELON satellite intercept stations around the world, there are a few key locations pointed out by Campbell and other whistleblowers.
The largest operation is located at the RAF Menwith Hill station in Yorkshire, U.K.,where over 300 million emails and phone calls are monitored daily.
Campbell and colleagues have pointed out that a clear indication of ECHELON-involved stations are large geodesic domes, known as radomes. Beneath these domed enclosures are satellites, hidden from eyes that may be curious of their orientation.
In the U.S., the primary station of ECHELON activity was originally at the Army’s Yakima Training Facility in Washington.
But that location has since moved to Buckley AFB in Colorado, home to more extensive infrastructure with supercomputers able to process the copious amounts of data collected there.
Another important base is the Pine Gap surveillance facility, located near Alice Springs in Australia’s Northern Territory.
Codenamed RAINFALL, this base is a main hub of cell phone geolocation, supposedly necessary to more precisely track terrorist targets with drone strikes.
Though the sentiment of drone operators doesn’t seem to support this alleged precision.
Instead of targeting specific people based on traditional intelligence, the program targets the SIM cards of cell phones.
This has proven to be an unreliable tactic that often results in the death of innocent civilians.
According to the Snowden leaks, U.S. operated stations also exist in countries outside the Five Eyes, including Brazil, Germany, India, Japan, and Thailand. Stations operated by GCHQ and Australian intelligence exist in Cyprus, Kenya, and Oman.
All the information collected globally is processed and sent to NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, where it is filtered before the agency decides what it feels comfortable sharing with the other nations involved in the program.
In addition to ground-based intercept stations, the U.S. launched several, billion-dollar satellites to intercept signals transmitted into the atmosphere that would normally diffuse into space.
These satellites, though classified, are said to have 300 ft. diameter umbrellas and are put into highly elliptical orbits to capture signals from the largest possible area.
It is believed the U.S. launched several of these satellites since the early 90s, in order to intercept broadcasts with the ostensible purpose of monitoring ballistic missile flight telemetry.
These satellites are able to intercept and relay every signal type for the NSA’s surveillance needs.
This includes COMINT, communications between people; ELINT, electronic signals other than voice, such as radar, satellite, telemetry; MASINT, the signatures of electronic instruments; and FISINT, electromagnetic emissions from testing of foreign aerospace, surface and subsurface systems.