ECHELON is a name used in global media and in popular culture to describe a signals intelligence (SIGINT) collection and analysis network operated on behalf of the five signatory states to the UK-USA Security Agreement (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States, known as AUSCANZUKUS). It has also been described as the only software system which controls the download and dissemination of the intercept of commercial satellite trunk communications.

ECHELON was reportedly created to monitor the military and diplomatic communications of the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc allies during the Cold War in the early 1960s, but since the end of the Cold War it is believed to search also for hints of terrorist plots, drug dealers’ plans, and political and diplomatic intelligence.

The system has been reported in a number of public sources. Its capabilities and political implications were investigated by a committee of the European Parliament during 2000 and 2001 with a report published in 2001, and by author James Bamford in his books on the National Security Agency of the United States.

In its report, the European Parliament states that the term ECHELON is used in a number of contexts, but that the evidence presented indicates that it was the name for a signals intelligence collection system. The report concludes that, on the basis of information presented, ECHELON was capable of interception and content inspection of telephone calls, fax, e-mail and other data traffic globally through the interception of communication bearers including satellite transmission, public switched telephone networks (which once carried most Internet traffic) and microwave links.

Bamford describes the system as the software controlling the collection and distribution of civilian telecommunications traffic conveyed using communication satellites, with the collection being undertaken by groundstations located in the footprint of the downlink leg.


The UKUSA intelligence community is assessed by the European Parliament to include the signals intelligence agencies of each of the member states - the National Security Agency of the United States, the Government Communications Headquarters of Britain, the Communications Security Establishment of Canada, the Defence Signals Directorate of Australia, and the Government Communications Security Bureau of New Zealand. The EP report concludes that it seems likely that ECHELON is a method of sorting captured signal traffic, rather than a comprehensive analysis tool.


The ability to intercept communications depends on the medium used, be it radio, satellite, microwave, cellular or fiber-optic.[5] During World War II and through the 1950s high frequency (“short wave”) radio was widely used for military and diplomatic communication,[6] and could be intercepted at great distances.[5] The rise of geostationary communications satellites in the 1960s presented new possibilities for intercepting international communications. The report to the European Parliament of 2001 states: “If UKUSA states operate listening stations in the relevant regions of the earth, in principle they can intercept all telephone, fax and data traffic transmitted via such satellites.”

The role of satellites in point-to-point voice and data communications has largely been supplanted by fiber optics. As of 2006[update], 99% of the world’s long-distance voice and data traffic was carried over optical-fiber. The proportion of international communications accounted for by satellite links is said to have decreased substantially over the past few years in Central Europe to an amount between 0.4 and 5%. Even in less-developed parts of the world, communications satellites are used largely for point-to-multipoint applications, such as video. Thus the majority of communications cannot be intercepted by earth stations, but only by tapping cables and intercepting line-of-sight microwave signals, which is possible only to a limited extent.

One method of interception is to place equipment at locations where fiber optic communications are switched. For the Internet much of the switching occurs at relatively few sites. There have been reports of one such intercept site, Room 641A, in the United States. In the past much Internet traffic was routed through the U.S. and the UK, but this has changed; for example 95% of intra-German Internet communications was routed via the DE-CIX Internet exchange point in Frankfurt in 2000. A comprehensive worldwide surveillance network is possible only if clandestine intercept sites are installed in the territory of friendly nations, or local authorities cooperate. The report to the European Parliament points out that interception of private communications by foreign intelligence services is not necessarily limited to the U.S. or British foreign intelligence services.

Most reports on ECHELON focus on satellite interception; testimony before the European Parliament indicated that separate but similar UK-USA systems are in place to monitor communication through undersea cables, microwave transmissions and other lines.


Intelligence monitoring of people in the area covered by the AUSCANZUKUS security agreement has caused concern. Some critics claim the system is being used not only to search for terrorist plots, drug dealers’ plans, and political and diplomatic intelligence but also for large-scale commercial theft, international economic espionage and invasion of privacy. British journalist Duncan Campbell and New Zealand journalist Nicky Hager asserted in the 1990s that the United States was exploiting ECHELON traffic for industrial espionage, rather than military and diplomatic purposes. Examples alleged by the journalists include the gear-less wind turbine technology designed by the German firm Enercon and the speech technology developed by the Belgian firm Lernout & Hauspie. An article in the US newspaper Baltimore Sun reported in 1995 that European aerospace company Airbus lost a $6 billion contract with Saudi Arabia in 1994 after the US National Security Agency reported that Airbus officials had been bribing Saudi officials to secure the contract.

In 2001 the Temporary Committee on the ECHELON Interception System recommended to the European Parliament that citizens of member states routinely use cryptography in their communications to protect their privacy.

Bamford provides an alternate view, highlighting that legislation prohibits the use of intercepted communications for commercial purposes, although does elaborate on how intercepted communications are used as part of an all-source intelligence process.


According to its website the USA’s National Security Agency is “a high technology organization… on the frontiers of communications and data processing”. In 1999 the Australian Senate Joint Standing Committee on Treaties was told by Professor Desmond Ball that the Pine Gap facility was used as a ground station for a satellite-based interception network. The satellites are said to be large radio dishes between 20 and 100 meters in diameter in geostationary orbits. The original purpose of the network was to monitor the telemetry from 1970s Soviet weapons, air defense radar, communications satellites and ground based microwave communications.


The European Parliament’s Temporary Committee on the ECHELON Interception System stated: “It seems likely, in view of the evidence and the consistent pattern of statements from a very wide range of individuals and organisations, including American sources, that its name is in fact ECHELON, although this is a relatively minor detail.” The U.S. intelligence community uses many code names (see, for example, CIA cryptonym).

Margaret Newsham claims that she worked on the configuration and installation of some of the software that makes up the ECHELON system while employed at Lockheed Martin, for whom she worked from 1974 to 1984 in Sunnyvale, California, USA and in Menwith Hill, England, UK. At that time, according to Newsham, the code name ECHELON was NSA’s term for the computer network itself. Lockheed called it P415. The software programs were called SILKWORTH and SIRE. A satellite named VORTEX would intercept communications. An image available on the internet of a fragment apparently torn from a job description shows Echelon listed along with several other code names.

Ground stations

The 2001 European Parliamentary (EP) report lists several ground stations as possibly belonging to or participating in the ECHELON network. These include:

Likely satellite intercept stations

The following stations are listed in the EP report (p. 54 ff) as likely to have a role in intercepting transmissions from telecommunications satellites:

  • Hong Kong (since closed)
  • Australian Defence Satellite Communications Station (Geraldton, Western Australia)
  • Menwith Hill (Yorkshire, UK) Map
  • Misawa Air Base (Japan)
  • GCHQ Bude, formerly known as GCHQ CSO Morwenstow, (Cornwall, UK) Map
  • Pine Gap (Northern Territory, Australia - close to Alice Springs) Map
  • Sugar Grove (West Virginia, US) Map
  • Yakima Training Center (Washington, US) Map
  • GCSB Waihopai (New Zealand)

Other potentially related stations

The following stations are listed in the EP report (p. 57 ff) as ones whose roles “cannot be clearly established”:

  • Ayios Nikolaos (Cyprus - UK)
  • Bad Aibling Station (Bad Aibling, Germany - US)
  • moved to Griesheim in 2004
  • Buckley Air Force Base (Aurora, Colorado, US)
  • Fort Gordon (Georgia, US)
  • Gander (Newfoundland & Labrador, Canada)
  • Guam (Pacific Ocean, US)
  • Kunia (Hawaii, US)
  • Leitrim (south of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada)
  • Lackland Air Force Base, Medina Annex (San Antonio, Texas, US)

See also

Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Echelon

  • ANCHORY SIGINT intercept database
  • Frenchelon
  • Onyx (interception system), the Swiss “Echelon” equivalent
  • Mass surveillance

See: Wikipedia

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