Eavesdropping on the Planet

excerpted from the book

Rogue State

A Guide to the World's Only Superpower

by William Blum

Common Courage Press, 2000


... Under a system codenamed ECHELON-launched in the 1970s to spy on Soviet satellite communications-the NSA and its (very) junior partners in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada operate a network of massive, highly automated interception stations, covering the globe amongst them. In multiple ways, each of the countries involved is breaking its own laws, those of other countries, and international law- the absence of court-issued warrants permitting surveillance of named individuals is but one example. But who is to stop them?

In 1999, the House Intelligence Committee of the US Congress sought internal NSA documents about its compliance with the law that prohibits it from deliberately eavesdropping on Americans, either in the United States or overseas, unless the Agency can establish probable cause to believe that they are agents of a foreign govemment committing espionage or other crimes. NSA stonewalled the committee.

Apart from specifically-targeted individuals and institutions, the ECHELON system works by indiscriminately intercepting very large quantities of communications and using computers to identify and extract messages of interest from the mass of unwanted ones. Every intercepted message-all the embassy cables, the business deals, the sex talk, the birthday greetings-is searched for keywords, which could be anything the searchers think might be of interest. Computers can "listen" to telephone calls and recognize when keywords are spoken. Those calls are extracted and recorded separately, to be listened to in full by humans. The list of specific targets at any given time is undoubtedly wide ranging, at one point including the likes of Amnesty Intemational and Christian Aid.

However, the people running ECHELON are not actually superhuman: they admit they have serious technical problems; they can't always intercept the Intemet as easily as they'd like; fiber-optic transmissions (which transmit a vast volume of digital data as a stream of light) pose even greater difficulties; and the data they collect is growing exponentially, overwhelrningly-sorting and analyzing the random communications in a meaningful way presents a prodigious challenge.

On the other hand, encryption expert Whitfield Diffie of Sun Microsystems suggests that these alarms raised by NSA may be a selfinterested ruse. "What the agency wants us to believe-they used to be great, but these days they have trouble reading the newspaper, the Intemet is too complicated for them, there is so much traffic and they can't find what they want. It may be true, but it is what they have been 'saying' for years. It's convenient for NSA to have its targets believe it is in trouble. That doesn't mean it isn't in trouble, but it is a reason to view what spooky inside informants say with skepticism."4 He might have added that raising such alarms also helps greatly at budget time.

ECHELON is carried out without official acknowledgment of its existence, let alone any democratic oversight or public or legislative debate as to whether it serves a human purpose. Which is to say: What gives the United States the right to do this? In Great Britain, when Members of Parliament have raised questions about the activities of the NSA and its ever-expanding base in Menwith Hill, North Yorkshire, the govemment has consistently refused to supply any information.

The base in England is now the NSA's largest listening post in the world. Sprawling across 560 acres, it has an operations center and onsite town, including houses, shops, a chapel, a sports center and its own uninterruptible electricity supply.5

The extensiveness of the ECHELON global network is a product of decades of intense Cold War activity. Yet with the end of the Cold War, its budget-far from being greatly reduced-has been increased, and the network has grown in both power and reach; yet another piece of evidence that the Cold War was not a battle against something called "communism".


Microsoft Windows

NSA has done something similar with computers. In September 1999, leading European investigative reporter Duncan Campbell revealed that NSA had arranged with Microsoft to insert special "keys" into Windows software, in all versions from 95-OSR2 onwards. An American computer scientist, Andrew Femandez of Cryptonym in North Carolina, had disassembled parts of the Windows instruction code and found the smoking gun-Microsoft's developers had failed to remove the debugging symbols used to test this software before they released it. Inside the code were the labels for two keys. One was called "KEY". The other was called "NSAKEY". Femandez presented his finding at a conference at which some Windows developers were also in attendance. The developers did not deny that the NSA key was built into their software, but they refused to talk about what the key did, or why it had been put there without users' knowledge. Femandez says that NSA's "back door" in the world's most commonly used operating system makes it "orders of magnitude easier for the US govemment to access your computer."

In February 2000, it was disclosed that the Strategic Affairs Delegation (DAS), the intelligence arm of the French Defense Ministry, had prepared a report in 1999 which also asserted that NSA had helped to install secret programs in Microsoft software. According to the DAS report, "it would seem that the creation of Microsoft was largely supported, not least financially, by the NSA, and that IBM was made to accept the [Microsoft] MS-DOS operating system by the same administration." The report stated that there had been a "strong suspicion of a lack of security fed by insistent rumours about the existence of spy programmes on Microsoft, and by the presence of NSA personnel in Bill Gates' development teams." The Pentagon, said the report, was Microsoft's biggest client in the world.

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