Echelon is an officially unacknowledged U.S.-led global spy network that operates an automated system for the interception and relay of electronic communications. Monitored transmissions are said to include up to 3 billion communications daily, including all the telephone calls, e-mail messages, faxes, satellite transmissions, and Internet downloads of both public and private organizations and citizens worldwide. Led by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), Echelon is operated collaboratively by the intelligence agencies of the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. The organization's name originated as the code name for the system component responsible for intercepting satellite communications.

Echelon collects information through an extensive system of radio antennae and satellites that monitor satellite communications and sniffer devices that collect Internet communications from data packets. Some sources claim that the organization employs underwater devices to tap into transcontinental fiber optic phone cables. According to the ACLU, Echelon gathers huge volumes of data indiscriminately, and then filters out useful information through artificial intelligence (AI) technology. The system is also said to involve voice recognition, language translation, and keyword searching to select messages to study in their entirety.

According to recent reports, Echelon enabled intelligence gatherers to learn several months prior to the World Trade Center strike that some sort of large-scale action was planned, although the details were insufficient to avert it.deit is not clear how much detail was learned. While Echelon is clearly considered an asset by the intelligence community, some organizations and individuals are made uneasy by claims that the organization monitors well-intentioned endeavors, such as Amnesty International. The Scientific and Technical Options Assessment program office (STOA) of the European Parliament recently commissioned two reports looking into Echelon. These reports found: that the organization exists; that it routinely intercepts both personal and business communications, in probable contravention of human rights; and that stringent encryption practices should be followed to protect against Echelon's transgressive invasions of privacy.

As counter-terrorist activity intensifies following the events of September 11, 2001, Echelon activity is also considered likely to intensify.

This was last updated in June 2007

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