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. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: @Pascal Meh.

          Americans have little choice in the matter, because there is virtually no privacy protection as a consumer. We are better protected from our own government's spying. Even though the government has often been revealed as breaking or skirting the law, at least there are laws. The US has nothing like the equivalent of the EU data protection laws.

          It is supposed that we can choose the companies we do business with based on this, since they are forced to disclose privacy policies with those they do business with. Those privacy policies often say they'll collect and share "relevant" personal data to "various" third parties they do business with. Basically they mean nothing, and say anything they can get their hands on (which you can't get a list of) they'll collect and they'll share with anyone they have a business relationship with (and you can't get a list of them either) When Google Street View cars were found to be sniffing wifi SSIDs and passwords and logging them against addresses people were outraged, and Google quickly backtracked and made excuses, but that only happened because the public found out this was happening. If they hadn't, that information would undoubtedly still be collected today.

          Somehow over a billion people now trust that same company to have closed source components on a device they carry with them nearly everywhere they go. I'm sure if it was revealed exactly what all Android collects and reports back to Google, there would be greater outrages, but so long as Google can keep the worst abuses secret, they are following their stated privacy policy and no one can complain about what they don't know!

        2. Pascal Monett Silver badge

          Re: I'll accept limited snooping if it means I can sleep safe and bomb free

          One of your own said it better than I ever will be able to :

          "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety"

          But hey, personal comfort is more important than freedom, eh ?

          Don't worry, you're getting exactly what you deserve.

        3. John H Woods Silver badge

          Re: @Pascal Meh.

          "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." -- Ian Michael Gumby

          We have pretty much established that limited snooping does not mean you can sleep safe and bomb free, so your statement isn't really very useful. Do you mean you would accept vastly more snooping, i.e., the amount that would allow you to sleep safe and bomb free? I think the amount of snooping required to achieve that is effectively unlimited. Or do you mean that you won't accept any snooping at all if it doesn't allow you to sleep safe and bomb free? Both positions seem ridiculous, but if you don't hold either of them your conditional statement is effectively content free.

      1. Ian Michael Gumby

        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."

        No, not always.

        You send a friend an email to his gmail account. Now Google has you on their radar.

        Facebook? A friend posts a photo of you and your face gets tagged. Now Facebook starts to track you even though you don't have an account. Don't disable scripts on the webpage and they embed a facebook script... they now track you, just like google.

        As to the government... they have a duty to protect you. And you could always move away...

    1. Cynic_999

      Re: Meh.


      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.


      OK, I've thought about it. As an analogy: If you were to decide to stay indoors and not leave your house for a week, that would be perfectly OK. If your neighbour were to imprison you in your house for a week, that would not be OK. It is a real pity that so many people cannot see any difference between the two scenarios, but consider only that because the person's actual situation is the same in both cases they must be equivalent.

    2. Stork Silver badge

      Re: Meh.

      Look, I hate to break it to you but in most of the western World there are actually rules (e.g. US constitution) against that sort of thing. If you want to open letters or bug phone lines, you need a warrant.

      I am in principle ok with that; with a general data slurp, not so much.

      One problem is that even if (a big if) the current slurpers are ok, who says the next ones are? To give you an example:

      In the 30es, the Danish secret police had kept registers over members of the (legal) communist party. By then perhaps not unreasonable, as the declared aims of the communists were not much aligned with the Danish constitution.

      As you may know, in 1940 the political situation changed and the secret police brought the register as a welcome present to Gestapo, who found it very useful. 22 died in a concentration camp.

      1. Ian Michael Gumby

        @Stork ... Re: Meh.

        There are laws, but its not necessarily to do with the snooping but with what they do with the data.

        At the same time... there are holes in the laws... capturing pen data (the data surrounding the phone call) is legal. There are SCOTUS cases which explain why there is no expectation of privacy.

        The mass collection is a bit grey, but it falls on this side of the legal line.

        Merging the data with other sources of PII would be illegal. The NSA locked the data down for this reason.

    3. Fat Northerner

      Re: Meh.

      I agree completely.

      My government can know everything about me, (and it does.)

      It's what it does with the information that's important.

  1. arctic_haze

    ECHELON and 9/11

    ECHELON did nothing to stop 9/11 not because of some absurd conspiracy. I believe the reason was rather the combination of low tech / paranoid terrorists and complacent intelligence agencies which listened to every international phone call instead of infiltrating the group which already once tried to blow up the WTC.

    1. theOtherJT Silver badge

      Re: ECHELON and 9/11

      I agree... sort of. I mean, I agree about incompetent spooks and paranoid terrorists and the implausibility of conspiricy. I can't yet bring myself to believe that the state - either ours or the Americans - would be complicit in that monstrosity.

      But... but... what would they be complicit in? Assisting to cover up child abuse because it puts a powerful person in their pocket for life? I'm pretty sure I could believe they'd do that. What about arresting Journalists and holding them without trial if they threaten to expose things that might weaken their powers? Is that impossible? Do we think they might be prepared to try people in secret courts on charges they can't possibly defend themselves against because they are also secret? Are we at a point where that could happen; where that has happened?

      No, I don't believe the NSA brought down the twin towers. I am positively terrified that if they're not controlled now, some descendent of that agency might be prepared to do something like it in the future... and I'm terrified of all the little baby steps they might take on their way there.

    2. Fat Northerner

      Re: ECHELON and 9/11

      As was said before, on a BBC documentary... They were listening to their calls, they just didn't know they were already in the US.

  2. batfink
    Black Helicopters

    Wrong targets

    I also get angry each time I read some blithe statement from the pollies or securocrats which starts on the basis that anti-terrorism is the be-all and end-all of the state.

    By some logic which I fail to follow, it seems acceptable to throw billions of £ and introduce mass surveillance "because terrorism". Despite the best efforts of the lunatics out there who carry out the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the like, very few people in the west are killed by terrorism. Yes, it's terrible for the victims and their families, but why is this regarded as worthy of the current over-reaction, when things that actually kill a lot more people (such as road accidents) get almost no attention or money? I'm sure the families of those killed on the roads are equally as bereft and traumatised as those who have lost loved ones in terrorist attacks.

    So, why are we told that it's ok to bring in mass surveilance for one problem, but not for more serious ones? I can imagine the reaction if the gummint proposed to track every driver on the road...

    1. clanger9

      Re: Wrong targets

      > So, why are we told that it's ok to bring in mass surveilance for one problem, but not for more serious ones?

      Simple. Terrorism threatens politicians' well-being. Car accidents threaten yours.

  3. bullsballs

    Put a stop to it...

    If we were to start broadcasting false info with the target words and terror threat to the government,

    you can bet the bomb that the auto detect software could start linking your name to those threats.

    Just like this website asks for your email then asks if you wish to post anonymously, it is such a joke, that is why you have several false email accounts to spread your dissent to those running the government.

    For those who still believe voting matters, look to the American system. You can see the pattern over and over, where those in power are voted out, and the new party comes in and continues the same path as the opposition before were pursuing.

    Until we can terminate those in power with extreme prejudice, and ensure those replacing the corrupt politicians will face the same threats, we will never see the end of corruption.

    Copy and paste messages like this every time you make an email and cell phone call, will plug up the system and neuter those seeking to data mine the communications networks. Make it take thousands of operatives to trace one flow of misinformation.

    1. veti Silver badge

      Re: Put a stop to it...

      Until we can terminate those in power with extreme prejudice, and ensure those replacing the corrupt politicians will face the same threats, we will never see the end of corruption.

      Doesn't work.

      The Russians did it in 1917, and within a generation they had corruption on a scale the Tsar had never dreamed of. The French did it in 1789, and found a similar result. More recently we've seen it happen in Uganda, Zimbabwe...

      The more "extreme prejudice" you apply to the old regime, the more devious the new ones will be. For all its faults, voting is the only way that has any chance of working.

    2. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Re: Put a stop to it...

      Copy and paste messages like this every time you make an email and cell phone call, will plug up the system and neuter those seeking to data mine the communications networks.

      Ah. something like this.

      There used to be an Emacs plugin for Usenet posting back when the two Kevins were a thing, but I can't remember (ruffles around in Phrack magazine archive... dissociated press? no that's not it)

      Well, I didn't find it but I found this in 1996

      Catching glimpses of shadowy enemies at every turn, (crying CIA guy) Deutch characterized them (hackers) as operating from the deep cover of classified programs in pariah states. Truck bombs aimed at the telephone company, electronic assaults by "paid hackers" are likely to be part of the arsenal of anyone from the Lebanese Hezbollah to "nameless . . . cells of international terrorists such as those who attacked the World Trade Center." ... Restated, intelligence director Deutch pronounced in June there was classified evidence that hackers are in league with Libya and Iran and that countries around the world are plotting plots to attack the U.S. through information warfare. But the classified data is and was, at best, anecdotal gossip -- hearsay, bullshit -- assembled by perhaps a handful of individuals working haphazardly inside the labyrinth of the intelligence community. There is no real threat assessment to back up the Deutch claims. Can anyone say _bomber gap_?

      Oh yeah. T'was ever thus. And China was not yet on the USAsian map ...

  4. nilfs2
    Big Brother

    The main purpose of mass surveillance is not security

    Information is power, and power is money.

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Re: The main purpose of mass surveillance is not security

      Power is power. That's good enough.

      I find powerful operators also grabbing the millions as a side-dish just disgusting.

  5. Cynic_999

    Instead of spending money on combatting terrorism, we could *save* a load of money by not waging war on countries that are no threat to us, and thus most of the anti-UK terror groups would never be formed in the first place. Not that I believe that the "anti-terror" justification for the surveillance has anything to do with the truth. My guess is that the primary purpose is to gather *financial* information so that the economy can be better manipulated for the benefit of those in power.

    1. Ian Michael Gumby


      I suggest you look at the isolationist policies of the US in the 1930's.

      Then consider the fact that Radical Islam doesn't care about you wanting to live your life in peace. They want a world dominated by their views on Islam and are willing to enslave you, kill you for not believing or converting to their beliefs.

      Do you need a refresher of the word in 1936-1945?

      There's more, but I don't want to upset you with the fact that yes, there are people who want to harm you because you look different, think different and have different beliefs. And its not just Radical Islam.

      1. Uffish

        Re: @Cynic...

        I just downvoted you because I think you are indulging in a bit of irrelevant rabble rousing.

        Mass surveillance won't reliably find terrorists , for the reasons admirably explained in an earlier post. Mass surveillance does work for other purposes than protecting you and me from assassins (for example, it works for Google et al). That is the reason to be very wary of uncontrolled mass surveillance.

  6. Will Godfrey Silver badge

    Fascinating and chilling article.

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Chilling indeed

      This is not about Soviet Russia, nor Nazi Germany.

      This happened in a country priding itself in being a beacon of civilization, a bastion of good education. In the end, totalitarianism starts with well-intentioned people who are given too much leeway to decide what can be done about something.

      It is frightening to think that the courage that these three people demonstrated would never had been known if the true nature of State Security went its logical course : a bullet in the head in some dark, bricked basement. All in the name of National Security, of course.

      The watchers need to be watched a lot better.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    This is the listening station in North Yorkshire: the 'golf balls' on the moors.

    These were, we were told, to listen to the Russians and that was a story that we all believed until some local once told me that the reason for the golf ball shaped covers was so that we couldn't see which direction the radars were really pointing.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Fylindales

      You really are that simple minded.

      Do you even know what type of radar was in place? What it actually looked Like?

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Fylindales

      You don't mean the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) at Fylingdales do you? The system up there isn't for mass surveillance and if had actually read the article you'd have some clue as to where in Yorkshire you should be talking about.

      Reminds me of the prosecution of two of the Menwith Hill protesters where BT were called to give evidence. BT did give evidence but only for one day as they sent another lawyer (I think they already had two in court) the next day to talk to the judge about the national security implications of allowing more revelations. The judge then had to tell Mr Morris, who at the time was BT's head of emergency planning, not to give any more evidence about what cables went into Menwith Hill. The evidence that was already in the public domain was already let out of the bag and the judge was not pleased with BT.

      Evidence that was released included the capacity of the cables running to and from the base etc.

  8. wyatt

    I'll never forget as a child my dad telling me what Flyingdales was for, that was in the 80's! I'm amazed it has taken so long for eveything to become known, what else dont we know??

    1. BobRocket

      @wyatt - 'what else dont we know??'

      Lots of stuff about Northern Ireland including state sponsored terrorism, corruption (financial and political), systemic paedophilia.

      It is less than 30 years since Good Friday, the bodies are still warm.

  9. Zmodem

    it was confirmed in 1999 by the austrialian government and in 2000 by the us

  10. EL Vark

    Thank You

    There are times, too many times, I fear, when I'm prepared to write off El Reg as yet another quasi-reactionary e-rag; from the apparently endless attacks on climate science (far from merely pointing out flaws and malfeasance) to the too frequent virtually Objectivist articles on economics. Were it not for Simon Travaglia, I might have jumped ship some time back. Then you stiffen both knees and upper lip and run a masterpiece by Duncan Campbell. Well done.

  11. JimboSmith Silver badge

    Good article!

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Related news

    This story and Duncan Campbell are inspiring.

    Another recent and fairly well-written bit, linked following, seems generally apropos given the audience and the topic here - - I know, I know - take it as you will.

    Posting anon simply because I'm not in the mood (or too tired/lazy) to deal with the possible blow back in comments.

  13. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    Dumb and Dumber Still Do as Stupid Does

    Is the Wilson Doctrine being adhered to by the police and security services and still expected to be by executive Parliamentary systems administrations? If it is then are they all surely undoubtedly guilty to being actively passive accessories both before and after the fact in a conspiracy to subvert and pervert the course of justice, law and order?

    And surely you aren't still thinking y'all are partaking of a democracy. ... That would be so quaint and naive and really dumb and stupid of y'all too if the truth was told.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Dumb and Dumber Still Do as Stupid Does

      "Is the Wilson Doctrine being adhered to by the police and security services and still expected to be by executive Parliamentary systems administrations?"

      Have you been away recently?

      1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

        Re: Dumb and Dumber Still Do as Stupid Does @AC

        And this is recently reported on the matter too, AC ....... New Rules, There are No Rules…… answering the question adequately enough.

    2. Fat Northerner

      Re: Dumb and Dumber Still Do as Stupid Does

      "Is the Wilson Doctrine being adhered to by the police and security services and still expected to be by executive Parliamentary systems administrations?"


  14. tom dial Silver badge

    An anonymous coward suggested above that there are two fundamental alternatives in the context of signals surveillance:

    "1) Monitor everyone (or try to)

    2) Target the surveillance, legally."

    A question that has occurred to me from time to time is this: In an environment in which a very large amount of communication occurs within the internet infrastructure, is there an operational definition of (2) that would distinguish it from (1)? Put differently, is it possible to accomplish the second without also effectively configuring for and to a very large degree doing the first?

    For example, if the FBI has a warrant issued by a US court in, say, Manhattan, that gives them the authority to target the communication of a US national thought to be planning a terrorist attack in, say, Washington, DC, how much communication traffic will they need to access, examine (programmatically or by hand), and filter to track the individual's cell phone, email, and land line communications if he or she is in the United States? If a targeted person travels to the West coast or abroad, how much additional traffic will need to be examined and filtered to attain the goals of the warrant? If a few hundreds or thousands of such individual targets are subject to collection, for the sake of argument all based on properly justified and issued warrants, the required collection and filtering structure is likely to begin to resemble XKEYSCORE and related downstream analytic programs. What if it is, in addition, a collaborative arrangement built up to support similar warrant execution requirements levied on the other Five Eyes agencies by their governments and designed to adapt to a set of targets that varies over time?

    Terrorism surveillance, however, is not the only and probably not the largest goal of the signals intelligence agencies. We know, or certainly should, that foreign intelligence agencies seek a wide variety of information about many subjects of interest in formulating foreign and military policy, and that they target officials of foreign governments with little restraint to obtain it. They do so by various means that include electronic and other eavesdropping that are legal according to the laws under which they operate, although often quite illegal under the laws of the targeted country. The methods, procedures, and technical arrangements used for foreign intelligence electronic data collection are essentially indistinguishable from those used for execution of warrants against individuals.

    I won't argue about whether such activities are morally correct, a question about which there is an enormous range of opinion when it gets down to details; under the laws of the country that does them, however, they probably are legal. My point is that either of the basic alternatives described seems to lead to the same result: a capability to gain access to a large part of the internet data stream together with processes to filter and select the data of interest out of it.

    1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

      Enigma 2 Codebreakers .... are Artificial Intelligence Workers?

      The bottom line, tom dial, for all into maintaining command and control of systems in administration, and you can accept all interpretations of what that, systems in administration, implies and reveals, is that the search for truths must be policed and mentored and monitored so that the virtual reality of situations and events are not compromised and upstaged by those who and/or that which offers an alternative and more compelling comprehensive view which cannot be denied or evidenced not to exist.

      Catch 22 Lives and Rules Reigns in CyberSpace? Yes, and IT does it extremely well too.

  15. web_bod

    Why endure such a hard life?

    If he'd named and abandoned his sources then he could have retired to a comfy couch in the Ecuadorian embassy and have people venerate his name.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Great article

    Probably the most fascinating read in a while.

    Whilst I'm well aware of what apparently goes on today I had little knowledge of the beginning.

    Well done.

  17. Eponymous Cowherd
    Big Brother

    Great insight

    This gives a great insight into the mindset of those who desire wholesale surveillance of the entire population's Internet activity.

    We (IT pros) all know that the whole "snoopers' charter" thing is a huge expensive white elephant that just, plain, will not do anything to "protect" us from the terrorists. Irrespective of any civil liberties and/or human rights issues, it is a pointless waste of money.

    But the spooks and their Civil Servant bosses are so used to being able to snoop on who they like, when they like, with no Judicial oversight, that they cannot bear to lose that power. The trouble is that freely available strong encryption seriously puts a spanner in their works., and the great unwashed are now more aware than ever about the way Governments spy on them and how encryption can protect them from this. Hence Cameron's latest turd-spurt regarding getting it banned / regulated ( despite that being akin to trying to ban farting in public ).

    The article also makes it precisely clear who are the bosses and who are the minions and neatly explains why successive governments and home secretaries all go down the illiberal Big Brother route as soon as they get into power. They are merely doing what they are told do to like good little boys and girls.

    1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

      Re: Great insight

      The article also makes it precisely clear who are the bosses and who are the minions and neatly explains why successive governments and home secretaries all go down the illiberal Big Brother route as soon as they get into power. They are merely doing what they are told do to like good little boys and girls. .... Eponymous Cowherd

      They are merely doing what they are told to do by whom and/or what, Eponymous Cowherd? Care to hazard a likely guess?

      And if intelligence doesn't rule and reign over everyone and everything, what does? But,more to the point would the right question be ...... why ever would intelligence tolerate something else providing future events and lead in chaos? Such would suggest frauds in high profile places of surveillance, command and control, methinks.

      And presents myriad opportunities for exploitation of an inviting vulnerability to those and or that discovered or discovering themselves to be more than just able.

  18. Fat Northerner

    Unlucky for Terrorists.

    I personally couldn't be bothered in the slightest, about plug sockets that are listening devices, phones that are tracking devices/bugs/ etc... or even enormous databases that hold all kinds of data on everyone and allow all kinds of experimental algorithmic mining to find out what everyone's motivations, hopes, wishes, and fetishes are.

    I'd even help them come up with the maths if I could.

    What does bother me is the entire concept of what they are able to then do, to people who only want best for their country, because they may have politically different, or critical views, simply because it advances their career or personal interests, with no visibility or compensation for loss.

    It is simply wrong. Not least when you see how well off, people who've basically committed child rape and murder by other people, and they've been protected too.

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Buy a clue

    Doesn't everyone know every country spies on other countries? Geesh.

  20. the future is back!

    this is for history books

    I think this is indeed historical - and fated to be forgotten and overlooked by many.

  21. The Dude

    Had enough yet?

    Vote Libertarian.

  22. Florida1920

    A patriot,

    Duncan is. Thanks for a lifetime of heroic investigation and reporting.

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "FROSTING’s two sub-programs were TRANSIENT, for all efforts against Soviet satellite targets, and..."

    Ah, Snowden and Transient may explain a lot of the reasons why certain groups were so angry over the cause of events that followed the leak. Things seem to have been rotten for a long time, and now got worse.

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Citation Needed

    Dear Reg,

    So we have a big headline - "ECHELON confirmed ... by ... Snowden files" and apparently six pages discussing this juicy claim.

    Only we don't. The first four pages are yet another rehash of Mr Campbell's ABC trial experiences in the 70s and his zircon allegations from the 80s. Only then do we get two pages covering Mr C's equally well-worn echelon claims. All of this is well known to anyone with an interest in this area.

    But it's different this time - the latter claims are confirmed by Snowden, you tell us. Except, where are the links to the confirmations? The Snowden claims were extensively reported by a number of well-known media outlets but you have no links into that established body of Snowden material to confirm the quotes claimed in the article. All you have is one link at the end of the article to a blog with a copy of this article and some links to documents on a cloud sharing site that could have come from anywhere. It's hardly the same as links into the Guardian/Der Spiegel/Washington Post.

    Big claims need decent sourcing, without which you haven't got a one page story, never mind a six page story.

    no love,

    Disappointed Conspiracy Theorist

    1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

      Re: Citation Needed

      Err, Hi, Disappointed Conspiracy Theorist and Anonymous Coward,

      Regarding your observations on the El Reg ECHELON confirmed tale, isn't that the way that the system like stories to be told to be believed.

      You'll find though that you are not alone in being disappointed with all that sort of nonsense, for it fools nobody but the fool and the puppet, and they be no danger to anyone spinning tall tales for them to follow blindly in the full glory of ignorance.


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