Ramblings & ephemera

NSA spying: Project Shamrock & Echelon

From Kim Zetter’s “The NSA is on the line — all of them” (Salon: 15 May 2006):

As fireworks showered New York Harbor [in 1976], the country was debating a three-decades-long agreement between Western Union and other telecommunications companies to surreptitiously supply the NSA, on a daily basis, with all telegrams sent to and from the United States. The similarity between that earlier program and the most recent one is remarkable, with one exception — the NSA now owns vastly improved technology to sift through and mine massive amounts of data it has collected in what is being described as the world’s single largest database of personal information. And, according to Aid, the mining goes far beyond our phone lines.

The controversy over Project Shamrock in 1976 ultimately led Congress to pass the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and other privacy and communication laws designed to prevent commercial companies from working in cahoots with the government to conduct wholesale secret surveillance on their customers. But as stories revealed last week, those safeguards had little effect in preventing at least three telecommunications companies from repeating history. …

[Intelligence historian Matthew Aid] compared the agency’s current data mining to Project Shamrock and Echelon, the code name for an NSA computer system that for many years analyzed satellite communication signals outside the U.S., and generated its own controversy when critics claimed that in addition to eavesdropping on enemy communication, the satellites were eavesdropping on allies’ domestic phone and e-mail conversations. …

If you want some historical perspective look at Operation Shamrock, which collapsed in 1975 because [Rep.] Bella Abzug [D-NY] subpoenaed the heads of Western Union and the other telecommunications giants and put them in witness chairs, and they all admitted that they had cooperated with the NSA for the better part of 40 years by supplying cables and telegrams.

The newest system being added to the NSA infrastructure, by the way, is called Project Trailblazer, which was initiated in 2002 and which was supposed to go online about now but is fantastically over budget and way behind schedule. Trailblazer is designed to copy the new forms of telecommunications — fiber optic cable traffic, cellphone communication, BlackBerry and Internet e-mail traffic. …

Echelon, in fact, is nothing more than a VAX microcomputer that was manufactured in the early 1970s by Digital Equipment Corp., and was used at six satellite intercept stations [to filter and sort data collected from the satellites and distribute it to analysts]. The computer has long since been obsolete. Since 9/11, whatever plans in place to modernize Echelon have been put on hold. The NSA does in fact have a global intercept network, but they just call it the intercept collection infrastructure. They don’t have a code name or anything sexy to describe it, and it didn’t do domestic spying.

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