back to article Echelon computers can't cope with bad lines

Who remembers Echelon, the top-secret telecommunications spy network said to be run by the US and allied Anglophone nations, and to be triggered as soon as certain key words or phrases are spoken on the phone? A lot of you, we'd guess. So it's interesting to note that Pentagon boffins have now stated that perhaps the most …


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  1. 46Bit

    Oh the irony

    OH RATS! That's awful.

  2. Forget It


    P A R D O N

    can you repeat that?

  3. Anonymous Coward


    A long while ago I slipped the "E" word into a conversation with a friend of mine who works for the Cheltenham based spooks

    He had to go in the next day and report it!

    (AC - obviously)

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      And have you still got the funny feeling that you're being watched or has that passed now?

  4. Pete 2 Silver badge

    sing along a Bin

    > tell on its own whether they are speech or something else such as music

    Terrorists with guitars! The horror!

    1. MH Media
      Thumb Down


      Terrorists with James Blunt playing in the background ..

      1. Jimbo 6

        I say we...

        ...nuke the site from space: it's the only way to be sure.

        Oh wait, you mean a James Blunt *CD* ? Best not go with the nuke option then.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Rickrolling the NSA!

      Oooooooooooh yes.


      Incidentally, I think this could possibly be an attempt to downplay capacity. You see, the NSA is now "helping" Google "with China" - you can say what you want about Google, but they appear to be damn good at writing analysers. I think this collaboration may thus actually be the other way round..

  5. Anonymous Coward

    Yet another technology...

    ...defeated by anyone with half a brian...

    "tell on its own whether they are speech or something else such as music"

    So just put a four on the flor and add sing it.

    If you're angry and you know it, blow it up

    If you're angry and you know it, blow it up

    If your really, really angry and you really, really want to show it,

    blow up the 5.15 to paddington on tuesdaaaaaaaayyyyy.

    1. Bilgepipe
      Thumb Up

      Epic Post

      Post of the week.

  6. Anonymous Coward


    My minkey has a burm in the rheum.

  7. mafoo

    A missed trick

    If they had said something like "Playing the crazy frog ringtone in the background provides immunity from echelon" then they would have made their jobs so much easier.

  8. Steen Hive

    Of course!

    That's why expensive, high-technology, rustly crisp packets have been standard issue to brown people/communist spies/Emmanuel Goldsteins for a generation!

    What next? Bin Laden sending in his order for an ICBM by singing an overdub to "Keep on Rockin' in the Free World", or something?

  9. Disco-Legend-Zeke

    A smart as... dog.

    No matter what the background noise level, or the age and gender of the speaker, my doggie can hear the word "Cookie," and come running for a treat.

    My GF, has an even larger recognition database, and reacts similarly to "Fry's,*" "Tiffany's," "Buffet," Etc., through all kinds of audio clutter.

    What makes a human or dog better at this task? Massively parallel processing. Your ear has a separate receptor for each frequency, and embedded processing to correlate the harmonics.

    A similar approach in hardware should solve the problem.

    DARPA: just send the money to my Paypal Account...

    ....and I'll rent you my dog.

    *Fry's is a ginormous electronics retailer here in Vegas.

    1. Dave Harris Silver badge


      Is the maker of fantastic mint-creme filled chocolate bars in the UK, or at least it was.

      Om nom nom

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward


        Five Centres!

        Jeez I could go for one of those about now! Though I 'spect it'd appall me these days.

    2. Chris iverson


      even more ginormous in California. Live 15 minutes from one. work 10 walk from one

      1. Disco-Legend-Zeke

        Fry's Started... a family owned grocery store, which by importing workers instead of exporting jobs, had a huge chain in the california market.

        When the family sold the business, none of the by then 250 or so key professionals wanted to work for the new owners, but they had a non-compete in the food business.

        So they kept the family team together, and used their food marketing skills for electronics. Their 8 page color ads looked just like a supermarket ad; today, their great color section is the reason to buy the friday paper.

        On the other hand, the GF points out to me that stuff from Tiffany and Co. takes MUCH less storage space. She also asks DARPA to hurry with that money.

        Getting back to the problam, by working in the frequency domain, using several thousand mechanical resonators and neural logic should yield a noise tolerant trainable word discriminator.

        Higher throughput can be obtained by overclocking, the upper limit being determined by the ability to construct small resonant structures and thermal noise, whichever comes first.

        1. Disco-Legend-Zeke


          ...MIT already designed the chip:

  10. Solomon Grundy

    They Knew It Already

    During initial trials the voice recognition package failed to perform up to spec on noisy lines. Everyone involved knew it. but there was nothing better, and their still isn't (unbelievably).

    That's not to say it doesn't work at all, and the level of line noise required to really screw the system up is far higher than many of the young people reading this who grew up using digital telecoms have ever heard.

    The DARPA project is really more of an upgrade, not a replacement.

  11. Anonymous Coward

    Yes but...

    can it understand Geordie?


    Hoo ye gannin, hinny? Whey aye, man.

    Give ower, y'a kiddin!

    An Alfie Hotching to Bizzies?

    Ya tarkin sh*te, Hadaway man.



    *** DOES NOT COMPUTE ***

    *** DOES NOT COMPUTE ***

    si_signo [3]: SIGQUIT 3* quit

    si_errno [0]: Error 0

    si_code [0]: SI_USER [pid: 11927, uid: 26432]

    stackbase=EE292000, stackpointer= EE291878

    Full thread dump:

    "Thread-5" (TID:0xee703b78, sys_thread_t:0xee261db8, state:R) prio=5


    "Thread-4" (TID:0xee703bb8, sys_thread_t:0xee291db8, state:R) prio=5 *current thread*


    1. Ned Leprosy Bronze badge

      Re: can it understand Geordie?

      Actually this technique was used by radio operators during WWII to confound German eavesdroppers whose English language skills tended to begin and end with an understanding of RP: though not guaranteed to trip them up, it was still reputed to be rather effective.

  12. M7S

    So could they understand a Dalek then?

    My BT line is so rubbish that at times it sounds like I'm using a voice modulator.

    Are Cybermen voices OK, and if so, pre-RTD or post?

  13. Anonymous Coward

    Knowing the Americans...

    I wouldn't be surprised if it only works on words spoken in English too, and only with a Texas accent.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      I've yet to find a speech recognition tool that deals with my Fife accent.

      Even when I try as hard as I can to speak "the Queens English" they fail.

      Maybe I should have tried a Texan accent!

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward


        I have a friend from Arbroath, he's been in London with us soft southerners for 12 years. Even now after 2 pints of beer he's completely incomprehensible to any of us!

    2. Someone Else Silver badge

      If'n it awnly unnerstanz Texiz ayk-sents...

      Then the rest of humanity is safe!

  14. Anonymous Coward

    Ah, in the good ol' days

    We used to use the M-x spook command in emacs to include a paragraph of randomised so-called hit words in our emails to trigger these internet-connected Echelon systems. For example:

    # Croatian nuclear FBI colonel plutonium Ortega Waco, Texas Panama CIA DES jihad fissionable quiche terrorist World Trade Center

    # assassination DES NORAD Delta Force Waco, Texas SDI explosion Serbian Panama Uzi Ft. Meade SEAL Team 6 Honduras PLO NSA

    The idea being that if you had enough of these messages intercepted each day, it would tie up so many human beings to separate the false positives from the real intel that they would have to give up. Arguably, PGP and other systems may be doing the same, which is why using both M-x spook *and* PGP together can be so much fun!!

    Mine's the tinfoil-lined one..

    AC because, well, because!

    1. El
      Paris Hilton


      "Quiche" is an Echelon keyword?!?

      Paris 'cause she always gets Echelon's attention...

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        GWB wanted Quiche on the list.

        Apparently you can get broccoli quiche.

  15. Andrew Oakley
    IT Angle

    Metadata, not data

    Was Echelon really ever about real-time speech recognition? I doubt it. Most of the power would have surely come the enveloper - from knowing who was phoning who, from where and when. If a chap you suspect to be a religious fundamentalist phones a chap you suspect to be a passport forger, then that is surely already enough to flag up the communication as worthy of further investigation, without having to pick out key words or whole conversations.

  16. ZenCoder

    Computer's are bad any any form for recognition.

    There are some ways to create a system that given a set of very committed and precise inputs (game pieces on a game board) that can "learn" to play a simple game like chess or backgammon. But these are things that we know how to express mathematically.

    We don't really understand how audio/visual processing works in the human brain. We can't program a computer to do something we can't break down into algorithms even if we had cheap super computers with millions of parallel processors.

  17. Stone Fox

    Am I the only one....

    who isn't convinced by this confession.

    is it possible they're trying to lure world + dog into a false sense of security?

  18. Robert Carnegie Silver badge

    But they can use microwave radiation from the phone

    to read your thoughts.

    As you say: they'd want you to think that they aren't as good (or as evil) as they are. Mention "labor", "civil rights", "abortion", "Diebold"...

  19. hi_robb

    Re : Crazy Frog

    I think Bin Laden wokolauld rather the spooks knew what he was doing than listen to that crap.

    din din din nananana nana na na nana nana ring ding.

  20. Inachu


    Go tell the enemies to walk into a room or basement aht isn't being bombed and has good connection! Hahahahahaha

    In all seriousness just start recording speech with static in the background

    So example A would be perfect dictation in a noise free environment and the dictation software is designed for that environment.

    example B the dictation software will be designed to understand voices only in high winds and this software would fail to recognise any speech in a silent noise free room.

    example C the dictation software will be designed to record speech in war environments only.

    etc etc...

    Yes so test example C by speakign while playing COD4.........easy.

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    If these kinds of things catch anyone it's probably someone who is so stupid they can't even set fire to their own crotch in their own bed room let alone set fire to their pants on a plane.

    Why are my subs always so rubbish? == It's time to blow up kings cross

    Really? Why not try the bacon! == I agree brother, the infidels will die!

    I havn't tried that, I think I'll try tommorow! == Yes muhahahahahahahahaaa

    And I'd spend my weekends baking for the local Church bake sale.

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Gedd orf moi land line

    If dodgy phone lines defeat Echelon, we should look for the Yanks to supply aid to upgrade said lines.

    Anon O'Course.

  23. gollux

    White Noise generator...

    So, if you held a speaker emitting white noise up to the mouth piece while talking, you'd have a poor man's scrambler? How humiliatingly funny.

  24. J 3

    it only works on good, clear lines

    Easy then! From what I hear (or not), all the bad guys have to do is use AT&T's service, then!

  25. Terry H

    Well this is disappointing

    Perhaps I should have kept my Sprint phone. They'd never get a word. Plus the constant dropped calls would be like a poor man's spread spectrum.

  26. Anonymous Coward


    This is funny news. As anyone who has tried to make a phone call from certain areas (uzbekistan, afghanistan etc) the phone lines are notoriously noisy. Even some of the later siemens and alcatel equipment still goes over dodgy old russian lines which introduces all kinds of interesting things to your conversation. Ive even had a 4 way conversation, half in english, half in russian with all four of us having no idea why we are on the same line. SS7 it most certainly aint.

  27. John Sturdy

    So will the old joke become true?

    Perhaps they'll get enough processing power that the old joke "Want to work for the NSA? Just mention it to your Mum next time you ring her, and we'll get you an application form in the post." will become closer to reality?

  28. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    DARPA have been chasing this one since 1970

    Google "Blackboard systems" or "Hearsay" for further details.

    Note this was regard to speech understanding and ran offline (using IIRC a DEC PDP10, roughly 10 hrs to process 5 minutes of sampled speech).

    No doubt custom hardware and faster processing has speeded up things quite a lot.

    I suspect random noise (of the type common on analogue phone lines) was a pretty big problem.

    Mine will be the one with "Blackboard Systems" in the

  29. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Of course there's a technological solution to it.

    A child, or indeed any donkey can see the solution to their problem.

  30. Phil 54

    Pig latin?

    Iway orfay oneway elcomeway ourway allway-earinghay echelonway


  31. Anomalous Cowherd Silver badge

    Radio in the background

    Bit of trivia here, but playing the radio or CD in the background won't work. All UK radio transmissions have to be recorded, so all they need to do is get hold of the recording and subtract it from the waveform - cancels out the radio and you get a nice clean sample.

    Osama will have to make his next phone call with his henchmen belting out a barbers-shop quartet in the background.

  32. Wize

    If they have something that recognises poor speach

    can we all have it to help us when calling certain call centres

  33. Snert Lee

    Incongruent coincidence?

    So while Google, recently partnering with the NSA, makes steady progress improving its voice to text/voice recognition services, ...

    And at the same time the Dept of Justice is arguing in a federal appeals court that citizens don't have a reasonable expectation of privacy, with regard to both content and location, on mobile phones because they've seen movies where the gov't eavesdrops on mobile phones ...

    Darpa jumps up and says don't worry, none of that stuff really works anyways?

    umm... color me skeptical.

  34. GSX1300R

    No secret ?

    Ref Echelon:

    Go and download as much data on "Echelon" for free from the CIA website public domain and also the EU parliament website public domain. Takes a while to find but its there.

    Echelon was panned by the EU parliament years ago when the US was accused of allegedly using Echelon to gain the upper hand in international business deals, something the US strenuously denies.

    Echelon has since been embraced by the EU and become an integral part of the EU security policy. Echelon used to scan the EU from British NSA bases.

    Check the CIA and EU websites for this and more data on Echelon, its all there.

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