Using Technology to Spy Is Much, Much Older Than You Think


After the recent leaks from former National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden, it's no secret the U.S. government is collecting and analyzing the country's communications. Back in June, Snowden revealed information to The Guardian about programs that intercept U.S. telephone metadata and monitor internet activities. There's been a firestorm of controversy since the news went public. 

Now the debates continue about how ethical these intrusions are, what they mean to the average person's privacy, and what people can expect in the future. While Snowden's recent leaks and the government's actions have shed a new spotlight on the controversial issue of privacy and communications, the technology to perform surveillance has been around and used since the 1950s. In short, these clandestine spying programs are much, much older than you might think. 

ECHELON is a secret global surveillance network controlled in part by the NSA, which was created to monitor the military and diplomatic communications of the Soviet Union and its allies during the Cold War. The spy system can seize and analyze every phone call, fax, email, and text message sent anywhere in the world, intercepting any transmission made via satellite, telephone networks, and microwave links. 

Large antennas in randomes, also known as geodesic shells, help operate the ECHELON system. The randomes capture all communication and then process it through the massive computer capabilities of the NSA, including advanced character and voice recognition programs. 

The programs then search for code words or phrases that prompt the computers to flag the message for future analysis. Intelligence analysts at each station maintain separate keyword lists and forward the intelligence to the agency requesting the information. Besides targeting terrorists and enemy states, ECHELON is also used for purposes outside of its original mission, which includes political spying and commercial espionage

The U.S. government is known to monitor the political activity of unpopular political groups and elected representatives, so much so that the ECHELON dictionaries (where the target keywords are listed) targeted Amnesty International, Greenpeace, and Christian ministries in 1992.

The U.S. government has also turned the notion of national security to include economic, commercial, and corporate concerns. The Office of Intelligence Liaison, located within the Department of Commerce, sends intercepted materials to major U.S. corporations. According to counterterrorism columnist Patrick S. Poole, the beneficiaries of this commercial espionage effort are the same companies that helped the NSA develop the systems that power the ECHELON network.

PRISM, on the other hand, has been in operation by the NSA since 2007, when the Bush administration passed the Protect America Act. It's considered an extension (some proponents would argue an "evolution") of the ECHELON program. A document leaked by Snowden indicates that PRISM is "the number one source of raw intelligence used for NSA analytic reports."

The FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which enables the program, authorizes intelligence agencies to monitor the phone, email, and other communications of U.S. citizens for up to a week without obtaining a warrant when the party is outside the U.S.

According to the Washington Post, which also received information from Snowden, intelligence analysts search PRISM data using terms identifying suspicious communications of targets whom analysts suspect with 51% certainty to not be U.S. citizens. During the process, communication data of some U.S. citizens is inadvertently collected, which leaves some people asking, "Who is tracking you online?"

While signals intelligence technology has been helpful in containing and defeating foreign enemies in the past, it's now evolved to indiscriminately target every citizen in the world. And while leakers have released information about how these program operate throughout the years, the revelations have never directly involved the government's tracking of personal and private information until now.