One of the Oldest Conspiracies Proven True: Project Echelon

One of the Oldest Conspiracies Proven True: Project Echelon

When Edward Snowden disclosed the vast conspiracy of a multinational surveillance apparatus, it was vindication for Duncan Campbell who spent decades uncovering one of the biggest facets of government overreach, Project ECHELON. And though it took nearly a lifetime to attain that justification, Campbell turned one of the oldest conspiracies into veritable fact: someone is always listening.

What is Echelon?

Shortly after WWII, five of the world’s major powers – the U.S., U.K., Australia, New Zealand, and Canada – signed onto a joint surveillance program in the aftermath of the Allies cracking the German “Enigma” and Japanese “Purple” codes. Understanding the importance of intercepting and monitoring signals intelligence, or SIGINT, these five countries, known as the Five Eyes, signed onto the UKUSA agreement, which divvied up segments of the world for each country to monitor.

Signals intelligence monitors all signals received from electronic communications, including radio, radar, telemetry, and just about any type of broadcasted signal. The advent of satellite technology in the late 50s matched with Cold War paranoia led to a rapid expansion of the program, indiscriminately monitoring all communication signals worldwide. Project P-415, nicknamed ECHELON, became the dragnet surveillance program between the five nations, though it was controlled entirely by the National Security Agency – the American intelligence branch operating under the Department of Defense. The U.K.’s intelligence agency, the Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, became the secondary arm of the ECHELON program.

GCHQ at Cheltenham, Gloucestershire



Through ECHELON, billions of satellite communications were, and continue to be, intercepted and stored in facilities around the world, before being sifted through by computer algorithms searching for keywords that raise red flags. The technology is also able to target individuals using not just phone numbers, but also voice recognition software. The program’s capabilities allow it to target almost anyone on the planet including world leaders, businesses, and private individuals. Despite this fact, it has, more often than not, failed its ostensible job of preventing major acts of terrorism.

Where was ECHELON?

Though there are a number of ECHELON satellite intercept stations around the world, there are a few key locations pointed out by Campbell and other whistleblowers. The largest operation is located at the RAF Menwith Hill station in Yorkshire, U.K.,where over 300 million emails and phone calls are monitored daily. Campbell and colleagues have pointed out that a clear indication of ECHELON-involved stations are large geodesic domes, known as radomes. Beneath these domed enclosures are satellites, hidden from eyes that may be curious of their orientation.

What are Radomes?

In the U.S., the primary station of ECHELON activity was originally at the Army’s Yakima Training Facility in Washington. But that location has since moved to Buckley AFB in Colorado, home to more extensive infrastructure with supercomputers able to process the copious amounts of data collected there.

Another important base is the Pine Gap surveillance facility, located near Alice Springs in Australia’s Northern Territory. Codenamed RAINFALL, this base is a main hub of cell phone geolocation, supposedly necessary to more precisely track terrorist targets with drone strikes.

Though the sentiment of drone operators doesn’t seem to support this alleged precision. Instead of targeting specific people based on traditional intelligence, the program targets the SIM cards of cell phones. This has proven to be an unreliable tactic that often results in the death of innocent civilians.

According to the Snowden leaks, U.S. operated stations also exist in countries outside the Five Eyes, including Brazil, Germany, India, Japan, and Thailand. Stations operated by GCHQ and Australian intelligence exist in Cyprus, Kenya, and Oman.

All the information collected globally is processed and sent to NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, where it is filtered before the agency decides what it feels comfortable sharing with the other nations involved in the program.

nsa fort meade

NSA Headquarters – Fort Meade, Maryland


In addition to ground-based intercept stations, the U.S. launched several, billion-dollar satellites to intercept signals transmitted into the atmosphere that would normally diffuse into space. These satellites, though classified, are said to have 300 ft. diameter umbrellas and are put into highly elliptical orbits to capture signals from the largest possible area.

It is believed the U.S. launched several of these satellites since the early 90s, in order to intercept broadcasts with the ostensible purpose of monitoring ballistic missile flight telemetry. TRUMPET, MERCURY, and MENTOR are the codenames given to these satellites believed to be in geosynchronous orbit collecting SIGINT.

These satellites are able to intercept and relay every signal type for the NSA’s surveillance needs. This includes COMINT, communications between people; ELINT, electronic signals other than voice, such as radar, satellite, telemetry; MASINT, the signatures of electronic instruments; and FISINT, electromagnetic emissions from testing of foreign aerospace, surface and subsurface systems.

SIGINT's Many Forms

The ABC Trial and Campbell’s Life of Prosecution

Ironically, Campbell was first introduced to the intelligence world through his mother, who worked as a mathematician under Alan Turing during WWII. But it wasn’t until much later that she discovered she had been working for England’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6. Little did she know that her son’s lifework would be to reveal the British government’s intrusive surveillance habits.

Campbell’s first exposé on GCHQ’s surveillance tactics was titled “The Eavesdroppers,” published in The New Statesman in 1977. His article was the first to detail the extensive level of surveillance being carried out by the Five Eyes, through information he obtained from American whistleblower, Perry Fellwock.

Shortly after publishing, Campbell found other whistleblowers who wanted to come forward, including former signals intelligence operator, John Berry, and journalist, Crispin Aubrey. After the three met to discuss what Berry knew from working for GCHQ in Cyprus, they were immediately arrested for “possessing unauthorized information.”

campbell crispin aubrey

Duncan Campbell (L), Crispin Aubrey (center), and John Berry (R) via


They soon found themselves involved in what became known as the ABC Trial, after the first initials of each of their surnames. During the trial, it became evident that none of the information Berry divulged to Campbell and Aubrey had been classified. GCHQ found itself caught in an embarrassing position, unsure what was technically classified and what wasn’t, while trying to intimidate the trio with counts of treason.

From there, Campbell continued investigating the larger network of surveillance stations throughout the world, eventually leading him to consultants working for the NSA. One such agent was Oliver Selfridge, who later became known as the father of machine perception, or artificial intelligence.

Selfridge gave Campbell definitive evidence of a connection between the NSA and the other Five Eyes nations, what Campbell described as an “umbilical link.” They went on to publish a report on this international surveillance cartel, titled “The Billion Dollar Phone Tap.”

Campbell continued to investigate rifts within the Five Eyes, exposing attempts by the GCHQ to launch its own SIGINT satellite, codenamed ZIRCON. He published the fact that the agency appropriated half a billion dollars to build the satellite without receiving permission, or even telling Parliament about it.

He produced a video documentary about ZIRCON at the request of the BBC, titled Secret Society. But when the network realized the gravity of Campbell’s investigation, it pulled the documentary and refused to air it. Campbell was still able to publish his piece in the New Statesmen, but not before its offices were raided and he was forced into hiding.

Authorities then raided the BBC and fired its director. Campbell’s documentary aired a year later and the ZIRCON satellite was never completed.

ECHELON in the U.S.

Campbell went on to interview an NSA contractor who informed him of the automated surveillance program sorting the mass quantities of data collected by Five Eyes intelligence agencies. One of those whistleblowers was a Lockheed contractor named Margaret Newsham.

Newsham was stationed at Menwith Hill where she noticed personal communications were being gathered on prominent U.S. government officials, including Rep. Strom Thurmond. She had been in charge of maintaining the array of computer systems carrying out this automated surveillance, before she realized what they were used for.

Campbell soon discovered the two primary stations the U.S. was operating, in Yakima, WA and Bude, an array in northern England. He discovered the stations had been used to spy on civil rights leaders and government dissidents through a convoluted web of communications, routed from U.S. satellites to U.K. stations, in order to avoid breaking domestic spying laws.

But his reports were largely ignored, until E.U. Parliament opened an investigation in 1999, passing sweeping legislation against the invasive mass surveillance just six days before the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Inevitably, those regulations were rescinded.

Campbell’s affirmation came 13 years later when Snowden blew the whistle on the NSA. In the documents he leaked, Campbell found definitive, written accounts of ECHELON and its existence dating back 50 years.

Today the program undoubtedly continues, with public acquiescence from a perceived necessity to prevent terrorism. Yet terrorist attacks continue to occur, domestically and abroad. What has also become clear is that these agencies have been, and continue to operate autonomously, eavesdropping even on high-ranking politicians.

If nothing is done to put an end to this type of unfettered surveillance, we may find ourselves in a police state, in which private matters could be used as blackmail or worse, privacy no longer exists.

Encryption software is the first step to protect one’s privacy, while understanding that sensitive material shouldn’t be presumed safe. Unless extreme measures are taken, assume your communications are being listened to and take the appropriate measures.

If Snowden and Campbell were able to get this information out there after all these years, at least we know all is not lost. It is still possible to hold some accountability to power.

China's Citizen Score Creates An Orwellian Social Rating System

China’s Citizen Score Creates An Orwellian Social Rating System

An episode of the dystopian sci-fi series, Black Mirror, is becoming a reality with the implementation of China’s social credit system. Though still in its nascency, China’s citizen score will become mandatory by 2020, affecting citizens’ abilities to get jobs, access the internet, and travel, based on the way the government deems their behavior.

The Chinese Social Credit System

It’s voluntary for now, but once it decides on the best algorithm, the Chinese government will obligate every citizen to abide by a set of rules that will dictate their ability to access services within society. There are currently eight companies competing to build this platform which will be enforced by the country’s massive surveillance apparatus.

There are already a number of users who have voluntarily signed up for the program, in hopes they may be rewarded, or at least immune to punishment when the system is mandated. Some believe the program will benefit society as a whole, while others fear their children may suffer if parents’ social scores become a factor in deciding which schools they can attend.

AliBaba is one of the top contenders for the interface, as its mobile payment app, AliPay, is used by roughly 520 million citizens. Its interface, Sesame Credit, is similar to a FICO credit score, but instead of having your financial behavior affect your ability to take out a loan or credit card, Sesame Credit would affect one’s ability to get into certain restaurants, travel, or even go on a date with someone.

The score can be affected by a number of behaviors, including what you say on social media, smoking in public, jaywalking, or getting into disputes with others. These behaviors are then translated into a numerical “sincerity” score and entered into the system.

Some of the citizens who have already signed up say they enjoy using it and that it has influenced them to be better members of society. They say they’re more conscientious about their behavior in public and the way they treat others.

But those who see how eerily Orwellian the system is, warn that it is a type of gamified social obedience, where a point system is made to feel like a competition that subversively allows for authoritarian social control.

When you also add the fact that the system permits what others say about you to affect your score, the premise of 1984 becomes all too relevant, creating a system where everyone fears their neighbors’ perception of them. This self-policing network effect is a typical strategy of oppression, but with a social credit score, it becomes amplified with less effort from the government.

Keeping with the gamification of the pilot program, rewards have been offered for those willing to subject themselves early. Faster check-ins at hotels, car rentals without a deposit, and shopping loans have been gifted to early adopters.


view from surveillance camera

Enforcing China’s Citizen Score

So how does the government monitor its citizens in order to know when to dock them points for any number of minor infractions? With an omniscient surveillance system composed of millions of cameras and a universal database of every citizen.

Known as the Dang’an System, the government maintains a unique dossier on every citizen in the country for the duration of their life. This file can be accessed in seconds by a highly advanced surveillance system complete with facial recognition software. And its omniscience is ever-increasing through the use of machine learning.

Citizens are not allowed to view the personal files the government has compiled on them since their birth – to do so would be a severe violation of the law, disobeying the party and putting one’s standing as a citizen in jeopardy.

The technology is used ostensibly for security threats, ensuring citizens’ public safety. Though it is also used to shame people for minor transgressions, displaying one’s photo on a large public screen for infractions such as jaywalking, followed instantly by a text message delivering a fine.

The technology has also been promoted to its citizens by selling it as an ostensibly convenient tool for daily life. Citizens only need their face scanned to order food at vending machines, check-in at the airport in seconds, or gain access to Wi-Fi.

But much like the credit score, these apparent conveniences are a façade for the more insidious reality behind the technology; that the government is watching and ensuring every one of its citizen’s behavior.

And it goes beyond traditional surveillance methods of CCTV observation in public places. The next phase that is already underway, includes police officers wearing body cameras and glasses equipped with facial recognition software that can identify suspected criminals and threatening gestures. These body cams are even fitted with a wide-angle, fisheye lens allowing for “720-degrees” of recording range.

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