The Echelon Controversy: Is our Privacy Being Invaded?

By now you've probably heard the rumors about the National Security Agency's (NSA) alleged communications spy network called Echelon. In case you aren't aware, Echelon allegedly can monitor almost every type of communication, including telephone conversations; faxes; email messages; radio, satellite, fiber optic, and microwave transmissions; and even face-to-face conversations in many instances.

The public first heard about Echelon years ago as a tool in the Cold War. Echelon was supposed to help America keep an eye on our alleged enemies. During the Cold War, people didn't seem to care about such electronic eavesdropping—they'd do anything to prevent another world war. But today's widespread use of the Internet and other forms of electronic communication make the concern over Echelon a different ball game.

Privacy is one of the hottest topics associated with electronic technology, and people take extreme measures to secure their privacy. With Echelon in place, you probably can't achieve total privacy in electronic communication.

But strong encryption protects your data and communications, you say? I don't think that matters anymore. If a loosely organized group cracking effort (such as the ones organized by distributed.net) can crack a 56-bit Data Encryption Standard (DES) encryption key in only 22 hours using personal computers, imagine what a boat load of state-of-the-art supercomputers can do to your supposedly secure 1024-bit Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) key. Logic dictates that with enough money to buy the necessary processing power, malicious users can crack even large keys in a reasonable time period.

People such as British author Duncan Campbell have consistently drawn attention to Echelon, and the TV program 60 Minutes aired a show about Echelon last Sunday. These ongoing reports allege that the NSA and other global spy organizations have run an Echelon-type operation for years. In the past, the NSA would have denied the existence of Echelon; today the NSA focuses on fending off claims that personal privacy is being abused using the Echelon network.

The NSA claims that government agencies aren't using Echelon to invade the privacy of citizens, but who is accountable to ensure that claim remains true? Where are the necessary checks and balances, and how can we, the public who funds such activities, inspect these checks and balances to arrive at some level of comfort? The answer is that we currently have no public controls over this clandestine operation.

Without proper government oversight and public disclosure about Echelon operations, we can only hope that the spy network is being properly used, and that's not good enough when it comes to our privacy. Where there is secrecy, there is also suspicion, so when the NSA asks American citizens to accept on faith that it isn't violating our constitutional rights, I have to wonder whose track record we're supposed to base our faith on.

Can Echelon operators resist the temptation to abuse such technology? Are the rights of citizens truly respected during the NSA's foreign intelligence gathering activities? We simply don't know for sure. I'm interested in what you think. Stop by our home page, and cast your vote in our new security poll regarding Echelon. We'll print the results in a future issue of this newsletter. Until next time, have a great week.

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