In the early days of the UKUSA Agreement,
monitoring required physical taps into international cables.
Since cablegrams were not all that common, Communications Intelligence
(COMINT) monitoring most of the international cable traffic
was simply a matter of manpower. As international telephone
traffic developed, the manpower requirement steadily increased,
but COMINT still required physical taps into the cables.
There was no thought given to monitoring domestic traffic, because
even with additional manpower, the COMINT stations were
unable to keep up with just the international traffic.
Microwave communications changed all that.
(It is believed that the ECHELON program may have come
into being about this time.) Microwave made interception
much easier, since there was no longer a need for a physical connection
to a cable. However, this technology lowered the cost of
long distance communication and the traffic volume skyrocketed.
Secrecy requirements limited manpower and the already overburdened
COMINT stations were swamped. Then, the even lower
rates caused by the breakup of the Bell Telephone monopoly, made
the traffic volume completely unmanageable.
Enter the Digital Age. The computer.
That wonderful work-saver. And save work is exactly what
the computer has done for COMINT spies.
By the time the Digital Age arrived, the scene had
been complicated even more, by a new device called a facsimile
machine (fax) that could send text and pictures over the phone
line. It was probably the fax machine that gave the spies
at ECHELON their first real break. Since most faxes
contain text, the development of Optical Character Recognition
(OCR) software made it possible for them to electronically scan
high volumes of faxes for "trigger words."
Even though the infant OCR technology was far from accurate, if
it only found one fax in a hundred that contained trigger words,
analysts would still be unable to keep up. But, the difference
was, that now they were now reading faxes that they already knew
contained trigger words. As we all know, OCR software is
now capable of highly accurate, fully automatic scanning of just
about every font and language on earth.
But the Digital Age had, yet another, even greater
windfall on the horizon for the spies at ECHELON.
Voice Recognition! This technology was probably the
single most beneficial development in the history of ECHELON.
In the early days of Voice Recognition, enormous computers were
required for this purpose. But, computers only cost money
and the NSA had plenty of that. The NSA realized
that the more people who know a secret, the harder it is to keep
that secret. So, if computers could reduce their dependence
upon manpower, NSA got computers. As with OCR, early
Voice Recognition software was far from accurate. But, again,
if it was able to identify only one suspect phone call out of
a hundred, it would make each analyst's work much more productive.
And, as with OCR, we know that Voice Recognition software has
become so highly accurate that it is now used every day on millions
of desktop computers as a normal part of business.
While all of this was going on, the proliferation
of a new communication medium called the Internet and an
associated technology called email must have made the spies
at ECHELON completely giddy at the thought of how much
easier their work would be. In fact, the Internet will probably
soon surpass Voice Recognition as the most beneficial development
in the history of ECHELON. The reason is quite simple.
The information that travels over the Internet is already digitized.
There is no need for Voice Recognition or OCR software to interpret
the communication into a digital format. This means a tremendous
savings in time, computer power and most of all a 100% accuracy
rate (after running it through a spell checker.)
Now, with fully automated systems sorting through
all of the intercepted communications, ECHELON analysts
are able to concentrate only upon that traffic that contains trigger
words. In fact, the NSA now holds a patent (US
Patent #5,937,422) on a technology that will determine
the "subject" of a communication without relying upon
trigger words. Now you can be put on a watch list for something
that you didn't say.
For the first time since 1947, they are actually
able to keep up with all of the international traffic that they
are intercepting. In fact, due to the proliferation of microwave
communications and advanced telephone switching systems, they
are now also receiving an equally large volume of domestic
traffic, which leaks from inside and is routinely analyzed
as well. Now they can't act on this intercepted domestic
info directly. But, once they know where to look, they can
arrange for one of their partner nations to look for further related
information and report it too them. In fact, due to the
reduced international workload, it appears that the spies at ECHELON
are devoting a significant amount of their energies to monitoring
domestic communications. This is the problem.