Microwave Made Interception Easy.
In fact, they intercepted so much data that they were unable to deal with the volume - until recently.
Today you have NO SECRETS.

ECHELON Development

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.



Copyright 2002 John Gaver - All rights reserved.