back to article Global spy system ECHELON confirmed at last – by leaked Snowden files

Duncan Campbell has spent decades unmasking Britain's super-secretive GCHQ, its spying programmes, and its cosy relationship with America's NSA. Today, he retells his life's work exposing the government's over-reaching surveillance, and reveals documents from the leaked Snowden files confirming the history of the fearsome …


        1. James 51

          The moment 'big data' reveals everyone wearing brown shoes is a terrorist they'll start wearing black shoes.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          With all due respect....

          If you are talking about post-forensics, I see no issue with that. I do see an issue with people who believe in a minority report, thought-crime approach to a new world order. Very dangerous, very stupid, very double plus bad, so don't get sucked into it. Your kids will pay the price

        3. I. Aproveofitspendingonspecificprojects

          Quite right

          The first thing Hitler did is compile a list. Stalin never bothered he just chose ratios of people depending on what mood he was in/how the trains were running. While it is always good to have a list it's just as good making it up as you go .

        4. Anonymous Coward
          Black Helicopters


          except they are not so concerned about the bad guys, they want to watch you.

          What you haven't done anything wrong?

          never mind they can amend the law or its interpretation so that you have

          what no rerospective laws? - to protect the children of course there are and wlll be

          not much of a step for information to be manufactured to order either, and what can you prove they will have all your gear... and it will be all legal.

          Goodness this Tinfoil Hat is becoming more and more comfortable

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        If you are a government spook with toys

        You essentially have two choices:

        1) Monitor everyone (or try to)

        2) Target the surveillance, legally.

        The problem with 1) is that it appeals to idiots, war mongerors, fascists and other unsavory types as a system (sorry, am I being too harsh?)

        The problem with 2) is that it takes more effort and energy. Oh and did I forget, respect for people's civil rights within a democratic society?

        Until 2) becomes the preferred route (or something like it) we will always live in fear of our political and economic masters. So we need to fix this, really, before it gets out of hand.

      2. I. Aproveofitspendingonspecificprojects

        There are devoutly religious men who can't or won't be silenced. These will either have god's protection or there is no god. For how else will both Muslims and Christians obey the prophet/son of god when he said what you hear whispered in secret, shout from the mountain tops?

      3. Dave 15

        And how good is it anyway

        After all in ww2 the BBC sent a message in the news that alerted all the resistance to the dday invasion but the Germans missed it. Perhaps taking my auntie a cake just baked could mean taking a bomb to blow up the queen...

      4. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        Experience shows mass surveillance results in

        ... money and power to those conducting it, regardless of the utility of the information obtained. Thus it will not go away.

      5. Mark 65

        It may continue to happen.

        It does not have to happen.

        Experience shows mass surveillance results in a poor signal to noise ratio and the real targets, even if identified, are soon forgotten in the chase for more information.

        Yes, but show me the leader and party with so few skeletons in the closet that they are prepared to meet GCHQ and/or the police head on and shut this all down.

    1. relmasian

      Agree but ...

      I have to agree with what moiety posted:

      "Problem is, everyone's doing it and to stop doing it would put you at a significant disadvantage, so it's not going to happen."

      However, I disagree with moiety that "it's vitally important for it to remain illegal." Instead, what should be illegal is the use of the gathered information for anything but national security purposes. That way, the information can be gathered while private citizens can keep their private activities as secret as if the information had never been tapped, even if the private citizens were communicating moral failures, such as adultery, and even criminal behavior. Lawyers, medical doctors, psychologists, and other professionals already operate under similar aimed at protecting confidential client information. Spooks could operate under similar rules.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Agree but ...

        @relmasian - That might work better than keeping the whole thing illegal - it's achievable and the spies wouldn't have to lose any toys.

        But even there and even if the spooks agreed to abide by the rules; is there anyone capable of believing them? They've been feeding us a bunch of massive porkies since the 1960s, at least.

        I don't believe the spooks are going to stop; become responsible; or limit their power in any way voluntarily. And before you all reach for the downvote button again (I took a bit of a panning up there) it's not because I approve of the fuckers, it's because of the nature of the beast. That's what they do - they break laws and lie about it afterwards.

        "So we can bitch about it on the internet until they realise the error of their ways and become good citizens". Doubt it.

        The only way to stop it is if we all habitually use enough encryption to make blanket surveillance uneconomic; but I doubt that'll happen either. Encryption is hard. And you only have to fuck up once and you're compromised...another of those "they only have to be lucky once whereas you have to be lucky all the time" things. In the absence of an easy-to-use encrypted comms package like in Cryptonomicon people just aren't going to bother.

      2. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        Re: Agree but ...

        Spooks could operate under similar rules.

        I find your abundance of faith disturbing.

  1. Warm Braw

    David Owen

    "I eventually relented. But one of my reasons for doing so was that I was given an absolute promise that the case would be heard in camera"

    So he was uncomfortable about persecuting journalists openly but quite happy for it to happen secretly. The first purpose of the surveillance society is to keep such morally void gits in positions of "power" where they will meekly do as they are told, Any additional "security" that may accrue is an accidenal by-product.

  2. Blank-Reg

    A most excellent article and I can't give enough respect for being as tenacious and thorough as Duncan. Hero gets bandied about a lot these days, but I think Duncan qualifies for that. There's one thing that NSA, GCHQ and their ilk hates - attention. They hate being watched, questioned, investigated and debated. I can imagine the rage and frustration at every new Snowdon revelation and the recent revelations that aren't Snowdon's are probably introducing a little fear. Yes you shower, we're paying attention and watching for you now. See how you like it and, unlike us, you do have something to fear.

  3. This post has been deleted by its author

    1. Marco Fontani

      Re: URL error?

      > I get blocked as "bot" by Cloudflare if I click on corrections.

      The pre-filled "mailto:" links? I'm very curious has to how this happens to you. Could you get more info and get in touch at webmaster@ ? Cheers!

  4. scrubber


    Those guys in the 60's knew there's be an existential threat to the west posed by Islamist extremists in 2015 so they set up a system of interception back then so it'd be perfected by now to protect us.

    Either that or they're using terrorism as a convenient excuse to keep doing what they've always done: spy on innocent civilians.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Foresight

      "The European Parliament then mandated extensive action against mass surveillance. Their recommendations were passed in full on 5 September, 2001.

      Six days later, the Twin Towers in New York came down. Any plans for limiting mass surveillance were buried with the victims of 9/11, and never formally published."

      One might almost say... too convenient.

    2. zhveurnq

      Re: Foresight

      > Those guys in the 60's knew there's be an existential threat to the west posed by Islamist extremists in > 2015 so they set up a system of interception back then so it'd be perfected by now to protect us.

      Because clearly the 60s were devoid of existential threats to .. er .. democracy, real or exaggerated.

  5. Trollslayer

    Where are the OBEs?

    They knew the risks and slowly, carefully did their job to protect our freedom in a responsible way.


    1. Synonymous Howard

      Re: Where are the OBEs?

      Knighthoods surely.

      1. John G Imrie


        In their position I wouldn't let any one in authority near me with a sword.

    2. Bob H

      Re: Where are the OBEs?

      There is a great episode in series one of Yes Minister about Honors that applies here...

    3. veti Silver badge

      Re: Where are the OBEs?

      Labour and Tories each have their own quota of honours they can propose people for.

      Which do you think is going to propose someone who'd been a thorn in the flesh of both of them?

      The Lib Dems are about the only party who'd even think of it, and I don't know if they still even have a voice...

      1. Fat Northerner

        Re: Where are the OBEs?

        As far as I'm concerned the government uses the honours system to keep people quiet. It's bribery imo.

  6. Aoyagi Aichou
    Big Brother

    I don't even know anyore.

    So what's worse, (mega)corporations slurping every bit of data they can get their hands on to use it for profit and providing it to unknown third parties (which includes state bodies), or (multi)national associations doing unknown level of surveillance in the name of "security" with the potential for political abuse?

    I'm asking because I see a very notable imbalance in interest between the two.

    Obligatory BigB.

    1. Mark 85

      Re: I don't even know anyore.

      They're merging so it seems. As corporates take over control, the likes of NSA and GHCQ will become merely redundant or possibly finding a new role using data fed to them from the corporates. Yes, I believe "freedom" as we know it is more restrictive than "freedom" as some of our ancestors knew it and will be something else down the road a bit.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: I don't even know anyore.

        They're both bad in different ways, but the spooks were getting data from Google et al before both with their cooperation and without their knowledge. They probably still get some via various means, and will constantly and continually seek access to more. Preventing Google and friends from gathering and storing so much information about us is important not just for its own sake, but for the sake of protecting us from others getting their hands on the data.

        Between my country and my country's "friends" like the UK having access to data about, corporations like Google having access to data about me, and less unfriendly or unfriendly countries like China and North Korea having access to data about me, I'd prefer the latter. North Korea can't do anything to me unless I visit there, but I have to live in the US and have visited and wish to continue visit the UK, so those countries definitely can do something to me.

        Some things I did as a teenager, had I been caught, would have at most had the cops over to talk to me to warn me to stop, and my parents grounding me for a while. If a teenager did them today he'd be arrested, expelled from school, and referred to the FBI as a potential terrorist. Had I been caught back then and got the proverbial slap on the wrist, I'd have something "on my record" that perhaps combined with writing posts like that critical of the status quo, would have resulted in me being put on a terrorist watch list (given that reports say over 1% of the US population is on some level of watch list, the bar must be pretty low)

        It used to be a joke when teachers warned "that will go on your permanent record" that no one ever had to worry about something they did in 7th grade following them around for the rest of their life. That is no longer true, and what's worse somethign you did in the past that was entirely legal could be viewed in a very different light by a future government that is less free (and let's face it, neither the US or the UK have been trending in anything but a "less free" direction) If you have a legal abortion today, but the religious right in the US was able to take control and enacted the Christian version of Sharia law in a few decades, that legal abortion might result in your execution.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I don't even know anyore.

      AES-256 everywhere, every purchase, every email, every phone call, every text, every everything. Make them work for it......

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: I don't even know anyore.

        AES-256? Everywhere? You are not going to get something that powerful in https. But ...

        gpg --edit-key C83946F0

        Command> showpref

        [ultimate] (1). Henry Hertz Hobbit (Legal David A Harvey) <>


        Digest: SHA256, SHA512, SHA1, SHA384

        Compression: Uncompressed

        Features: MDC, Keyserver no-modify

        [ultimate] (2) Henry Hertz Hobbit (Legal David A Harvey) <>


        Digest: SHA256, SHA512, SHA1, SHA384

        Compression: Uncompressed

        Features: MDC, Keyserver no-modify

        I do use AES-128 as part of 7zip but you should realize that it was actually better than AES-256 several years back because AES-256 didn't do enough loops. I think Camellia-256 (created by two Japanese companies) is a better second choice to Schneier's TwoFish. I cannot even get people to use enciphering for messages that contain malware host names and then they wonder why my combination IMSP / IWSP's SMTP server rejects their message. The killer was when somebody tried to mail me their program for handling hosts files on Windows 7 as an EXE. It didn't even make it to my IMSP's SMTP server because it got blocked on the sending end. Now he rars it with a password and it sails right on through. Couldn't he have just used ZIP with a password? I have no man page for rar / unrar. We are just avoiding SMTP issues and they still won't use encryption inless they absolutely must use it. NOBODY will use encryption with me. Well, my downloads are signed if they ever want to verify that they came from me. But you have a lot of trusting sheeple these days.

  7. Spasticus Autisticus
    Big Brother

    Menwith Hill Station

    I remember a Mark Thomas program where he found out that there was no no-fly zone over the Menwith Hill giant golf balls and organised a large number of hot-air balloons to over fly the station. Plod weren't very pleased - like a lot of things Mark does so brilliantly. I don't remember when the program aired but I'm fairly sure ECHELON was mentioned then too.

    1. Bob H

      Re: Menwith Hill Station

      To be fair though Mark Thomas is a bit of a knob (not Brian Cox's spelling). He once turned up at JFB Corsham demanding to be let in and shown the secret tunnels under it. A very nice press relations officer came to the gate and said something along the lines of "Mr Thomas, if you put in a formal request we'll gladly take you down there, but you can't just turn up unannounced", he then cried about them hiding things while she responded that they'd happily show him if he'd only get an appointment.

      Having visited JFB Corsham myself and having met people who have been down there I see he was making a fuss about nothing. The tunnels under Corsham have been abandoned and neglected for many years since they were a Cold War bolt-hole. Mark Thomas went down in my estimation after that, and I was also unimpressed by his giving detailed instructions on how to attack the UK's strategic fuel pipelines, even if that wasn't a major threat it was inconsiderate.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Menwith Hill Station

      The golf balls haven't been in use for over twenty years which is well before the program. Local plod wouldn't have cared.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Menwith Hill Station

      Mark Thomas Comedy Product, Series 3 Episode 7, Menwith Hil, 1999. 25 minutes.

      You know where to look.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Fascinating, Terrifying and, farcical in equal part.

    The fact that it's so farcical at times may make it all the more terrifying.

  9. Little Mouse

    It works even better with John Cleese and Graham Chapman voices....

    JC: Is that the name of your unit?

    GC: I cannot answer that question, that is a secret.

    JC: Is that the board which passersby on the main road see outside your unit's base?

    GC: Yes.

    JC: Read it out to the jury, please.

    GC: I cannot do that. It is a secret.

    You couldn't make it up.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      It does sound farcical, however there is a reasonable explanation. If he was told not to reveal which organisation he worked for by his bosses. Then the above conversation when taken in context is perfectly correct. Because if he read it out it would then be in "open record" and he'd get a bollocking.

      1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        there is a reasonable explanation

        ... for sufficiently small values of "reasonable".

        1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
          Thumb Up

          This is a Major Major Major Major moment!

  10. Snowy Silver badge

    Nice article...

    [quote]The European Parliament then mandated extensive action against mass surveillance. Their recommendations were passed in full on 5 September, 2001.

    Six days later, the Twin Towers in New York came down. Any plans for limiting mass surveillance were buried with the victims of 9/11, and never formally published. But proof of ECHELON become available.[/quote]

    The timing of that looks rather hmmm interesting

    1. Identity
      Black Helicopters

      Re: Nice Article (9/11)

      One could, perhaps, be forgiven for branding me a conspiracy theorist (though after this article, you have to wonder). I would suggest the anyone interested look for the film "Loose Change," which is available free (and virally) online. Pay particular attention to "Operation Northstar,' which dates from when all this began.

      1. phil dude

        Re: Nice Article (9/11)

        @Identity You are Ricky Gervais and I claim my $5.


    2. Grikath

      Re: Nice article...

      Nice tinfoil hattery, but 9-11 was not about the WTC, other than as a symbol of "US Decadence". The Pentagon was targeted, and hit as well, and there's one case of death-defying classic heroism that prevented either the White House, Congress/Senate or for that matter anything else in that vicinity of symbolic importance to be hit as well.

      As an almost offhanded remark the utter irony and sarcasm of that short sentence : "Six days later, the Twin Towers in New York came down." probably passes you by, which is a shame, really, but let me spell it out for you:

      Despite the massive surveillance, and the known entity of a home-grown terrorist organisation ( never forget that Al-Queda is the abortive bastard child of the US/CIA meddling in that part of the world..) , all "intelligence agencies" completely missed the planning and execution of the most massive "act-of-war" operation to date. The spotting of which those agencies were specifically called into being for to begin with.

      Meanwhile, as the article shows, those agencies were quite capable and willing to harrass a civilian domestic journalist who happened to threaten their Status Quo, so it isn't that they could not spot and track anyone they were interested in.

      So you end up with a massive breach of civil liberty and fundamental law, under a system that has proven ineffective several times over at performing its mandated duty, while showing clear and undisputed evidence of being used for unmandated and unlawful activities.

      And yes, this should be Questioned.

      1. theOtherJT Silver badge

        Re: Nice article...


        A person only slightly more cynical than me might suggest that they did know, and saw an opportunity to be exploited where any non sociopath would see a disaster to be averted.

        I still don't believe that's the case, but for every day that passes I'm more and more concerned that the reason for this is more that I don't want to live in a world where that sort of thing is true, and less that it's ridiculous and utterly implausible.

        1. Grikath

          Re: Nice article... @theOtherJT

          It depends, really. When it comes to 9-11 , enough relatively non-biased information is out there to put the blame for that one squarely at interdepartmental infighting and Hubris.

          The individual pieces of information about what was going on were there. Them being gathered by old-fashioned legwork, and part coming from non-UK Europe made important people either dismmiss the info, or the bits were, at the moment of "impact", still circulating in the System, waiting for Assessment. So when it comes to the human drama of what happened on that day, you're actually looking at human incompetence. The System has become more important than the Job. That that System (still) incorporates the Fossils from the Cold War era well entrenched into the upper echelons who seem to be unable to live with the fact that the damned thing is over does not help, but those peeps would not allow anything To Touch Sacred US Soil. Too much of their reputation depends on it. In that sense they're the US version of the Brit Nobby Circuit.

          And really, if you look carefully at the article, the dissatisfaction about the Rot in the System that caused Snowden to go public is nothing new. The article spans decades of like-frustrated people willing to address the same issue publicly. It's simply that they could not get the exposure the modern internet allows these things since, ultimately, just the past decade. They were limited to print. Snowden had the Internet.

    3. Tridac

      Re: Nice article...

      One has to ask, if they monitored and thus knew everything, why were they not aware that 9/11 was about to happen ?. Cynic might say that perhaps they didn't want to, in the same way that Churchill might not have shared intel, that then brought the US into WWII. International politics can be a dirty business and not for the faint hearted. It's no use wringing hands and bleating about the rules, if the opponent ignores then to advantage.

      Some monitoring is obviously necessary, with ISIS and other groups at the gates of Europe. Some of them will eventually get through. As for the data, if you want to see the size of the task, just look up the data flow per hour on the internet worldwide. I doubt if they could monitor more than a small fraction of that, much of which will be encrypted anyway. Targetted intercept is the only way it can work and I doubt if they are really that interested in the colour of your other half's shorts :-)...

      1. Fat Northerner

        Re: Nice article...

        The science had been invented to allow them to establish it would happen.

        There's been documentary after documentary which has clarified this.

        I think the most pertinent one contains a line, I paraphrase, "We knew everything about these guys, names, dob, history, allegiances etc. What we didn't know was that they were on the US soil at the time."

        The people that protect us, (and despite me never having worked for any of them, I still believe that they are there for that, despite having the view of several miscarriages of justice which were necessary for the bigger picture,) had in the previous two years asked if they could test new developments in mathematics, because they were finding it very difficult to identify IT aware nutters using conventional means.

        The US senate refused permission in 1999. This was on the BBC. The US Senate was full of the same kinds of people who populate most parliaments, e.g. non scientific, ego centricists, but they did do their job of protecting civil liberties.

        It was an inevitable consequence of an IT aware Al Queda, that sooner or later the senate's refusal to allow exclusion based geo-locint, would result in a catastrophe, and the whole Big Data science has been a state sponsored attempt to harness the world's brains to find nutters, in my opinion.

        I will go to my grave, hopefully a long time from now, still supporting these people, despite terrible miscarriages of justice, because the cost benefit analysis shows we are better off with them, especially if they have to justify themselves.

        There have been dozens of documentaries which reference the Senate's refusal to allow geo-loc analysis on nutters, largely because had they done it, they'd have found them.

  11. Ian Michael Gumby


    Look, hate to break it to you but for most of the world, the governments do spy (surveillance) their own citizens on a regular basis. Not a real shocker is it?

    The issue is what do they do with the information that they gathered.

    That's the key issue.

    Secondary is why are they have someone under surveillance in the first place.

    The larger irony in today's world is that many of the posters who feign outrage forget how much of their personal life they freely give to corporations who can do much more than what any government could do while restricted by law.

    Think about that for a while.

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Re: Meh.

      Yes, there are people who give up their personal life to corporations, however there is an enormous difference : they do it by their own choice.

      They use their freedom to conduct their lives as they see fit. Misguidedly, perhaps, but it is their freedom to do so.

      Comparing that silliness, which is and always has been public knowledge, with the Stasi-like efforts of paranoid "security" organisations that slurp everything without consent and are one step away from blindfolding and shooting behind the shed anyone who has the courage to speak up is utterly ridiculous.

      1. Ian Michael Gumby

        @Pascal Re: Meh.


        That's debatable.

        There was a joke back in the 80's. Before the wall came down.

        An Amerikan biz man goes to Russia. (Brings two suitcases. One with some magazines and blue jeans, another with his work clothes. )

        He gets to his hotel room.

        He talks loudly that this place is crap, the heater isn't working.

        5 min later... a man shows up with a work order to fix the heater. ;-)

        Again while many may excuse corporate America for spying on us as saying we allow it, that's not quite true. I don't use Google and my Friend's company uses a google vanity domain for their company.

        Now Google knows me.

        You don't take steps to block some of the invasive tech... on a web site... maybe here. So even if I don't have a FB account, they are capturing data about me. I have to go to NoScript and turn scripts on and off. The point is that you have less control.

        The irony is that the Feds have more restrictions on what they can do with the data, how they must treat the data, and how they can join the data... breaking these rules can lead to jail time.

        As to why... there really are bad people who want to kill you because you are different than them. I for one enjoy a multi-cultural community where everyone is equal until they prove themselves to be an A hole. ;-)

        Sorry, but when you have people blowing themselves up and killing people... I'll accept limited snooping if it means I can sleep safe and bomb free.


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