Last modified on July 13, 2016, at 11:50


A "golf ball" radome at the Menwith Hill ECHELON intercept station, Yorkshire, England

ECHELON is a global system for intercepting communications, operating in cooperation between the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand under the UKUSA Agreement[1] The purpose of the system appears not to be to monitor for military intelligence, but to intercept private and commercial communications. The US intelligence services in particular have allegedly used the system to engage in industrial espionage, particularly where contracts are being awarded. Although they justify these intercepts on the grounds of combating attempted bribery, there is evidence that the information is used for the purpose of competitive commercial intelligence-gathering rather than combating corruption.[2]

The interception by ground stations of messages sent via Intel satellites (the first global satellite communication system) began in the 1970s. The messages were searched by computer for specific keywords and/or addresses in order to filter out the relevant communications. Surveillance activity was later extended to other satellites, such as those of Inmarsat, which concentrated on maritime communications. The interception of satellite communications represents only a small, albeit important, part of the eavesdropping system, for there are also numerous facilities for monitoring microwave and cable links, although these are less well documented and their existence is more difficult to prove, since, unlike ground stations, they are rather inconspicuous.[3]

Further reading


  1. Bamford, James The Puzzle Palace: A Report on America's Most Secret Agency (Penguin Books, 1983) ISBN 0140067485. Pages 391-425
  2. Nicky Hager Appearance before the European Parliament ECHELON Committee 23–24 April 2001 cryptome Accesed 30 January 2008
  3. Temporary Committee on the ECHELON Interception System European Parliament: Report on the existence of a global system for the interception of private and commercial communications (ECHELON interception system) (2001/2098(INI)). Accessed 30 January 2008