Their target? A top-secret global surveillance system that sounds more like something out of "The X-Files" than a real computer network operated by five countries. The system, known as Echelon, isn't officially acknowledged by the U.S. government. "We don't confirm or deny the existence of Echelon," said a spokeswoman for the U.S. National Security Agency. The agency is believed to play a major role in operating the system.
Still, there's growing evidence that Echelon exists. "There is this science-fiction quality to this that is hard for people to accept," said Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "But it appears to be quite real. People are just beginning to get over the hump of disbelief."
In Europe, where the European Parliament began questioning Echelon's capabilities last year, the subject is serious news. In the United States, though, many Americans have never heard of Echelon. "It wasn't until this year that a member of Congress (Barr) had ever actually uttered the word 'Echelon' on the floor of the House," Steinhardt said.
No one really even knows what the code name Echelon means. The word itself is defined as "a steplike formation of ships or troops," or the "levels of responsibility or importance in an organization." From what has been uncovered so far, mostly by investigative journalists, Echelon is a worldwide network of satellites and computerized interception stations operated by the governments of the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Some describe it as a "huge vacuum cleaner" sweeping up e-mails, faxes and telephone calls.
Each month, "we're talking tens of millions of volumes if it was printed out on pages," said Christopher Simpson, an American University professor who has written four books about national security technology. Simpson said Echelon scans e-mail for hot-button words like militia, Davidian, terrorism and AK-47. It can recognize individual voices in telephone calls and track who is calling whom.
The system, Simpson said, was created during the Cold War to detect matters of national security, such as terrorism. But in the past year, there have been growing concerns, from conservatives and liberals alike, of illegal eavesdropping by Echelon:
An official report to the European Parliament published last year concluded that Echelon has listening posts all over the world that can intercept any phone calls, e-mail or faxes transmitted by satellite. "Echelon is designed for primarily nonmilitary targets: governments, organizations and businesses in virtually every country," the report said. A follow-up report issued in May said there is evidence that the U.S. government has used Echelon to pick up the secrets of foreign corporations and pass them on to American companies.
The Free Congress Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., last year produced a detailed report denouncing Echelon's "shameless and illegal targeting of political opponents, business competitors, dissidents and even Christian ministries." The foundation urged Congress to investigate.
Earlier this year, Barr called for congressional hearings on Echelon. "By all appearances, what we have is a massive government program that scoops up unbelievably huge numbers of private communications, indiscriminately, without any oversight or court involvement," Barr said in a telephone interview. "There's a very important, but fine, line between legitimate foreign intelligence gathering and unconstitutional eavesdropping on American citizens, and it appears that line has been crossed."
The ACLU wrote to congressional representatives in April about concerns that Echelon could illegally intercept Americans' private communications. "The troubling aspect is that Echelon is this huge system that operates without any oversight or scrutiny from anybody," said the ACLU's Steinhardt. Because Echelon is a top-secret project, its name doesn't appear in the National Security Agency's budget. Even most congressional representatives aren't privy to what it does or how much it costs.
But a key question is, does Echelon snoop on ordinary, law-abiding people? "You bet," said Simpson, the American University professor, who has studied Echelon. "Certainly every time an international telephone call is made. There's good reason to believe domestic telephone calls are intercepted as well. "As we move into this interconnected electronic world, you've got Big Brothers, and you've got Little Brothers," Simpson said. "Little Brothers are companies like supermarkets and Internet companies that keep an eye on you. And you've got Big Brother that keeps an eye on you. The Biggest Brother of all is the Echelon system."
How can Echelon snoop without getting judges' orders for wiretaps or searches? "Because they're doing it in outer space," Simpson said. The information is being plucked from satellites orbiting thousands of miles away, where, he said, U.S. laws don't apply.
Some computer users are so upset about the suspected spying that they've begun playing games with Echelon. For years, they've inserted threatening words in their e-mail, hoping to create more work for the spy system. They call themselves "hacktivists" -- part hacker, part activist -- and they're taking the issue out of their e-mail message group and want to go global. They've declared Oct. 21 "Jam Echelon Day." They want people to use a flood of militia-like words in e-mails with the goal of crashing the spy system.
"Just be sure to sound as subversive as possible," their Internet postings say. Robert Kemp, a hacktivist from Michigan, said the message has been translated into French, German and Russian, and that the event has attracted supporters from all over the world. "All we're talking about is speaking freely in your e-mail, and that in itself could create havoc," he said. But it's highly doubtful any real harm will be done. Lisa Dean of the Free Congress Foundation thinks Echelon is far too powerful to be affected by a mass e-mail protest. "If you want to participate, fine," she said. "But if you're hoping it will have an effect, I think you're going to be disappointed."
The impact of Jam Echelon Day probably will never be made public. But the event highlights growing concerns about the U.S. government's computer monitoring activities. Steven Aftergood, senior research analyst for the Federation of American Scientists, said the idea that Echelon is looking into our e-mail "may all be a hallucination." Still, he said, Americans have reason for concern. "The intelligence agencies have been given extraordinary powers to conduct surveillance, and we need to make sure that those powers are being exercised responsibly and in conformity with the law," said Aftergood, who directs the nonprofit federation's project on government secrecy.
The U.S. government recently pushed for an expansion of its high-tech surveillance powers. In July, the National Security Council proposed monitoring computer networks used in banking, telecommunications, transportation and nonmilitary government operations. The goal would be to protect the nation's crucial data networks. In August, the U.S. Justice Department proposed legislation to give law enforcement officials authority to secretly plant code-breaking devices or software in home and office computers during criminal investigations. And just last week, the FBI came out in support of a proposal for Internet standards that will enable law enforcers to conduct court-authorized wiretaps on personal computers.
Sara Baase, a San Diego State University professor who has written a textbook about ethical issues in computing, said the government's monitoring of computers is weakening the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens from illegal search and seizure. "There are very serious civil liberty and privacy concerns," she said.
Lance Cottrell, president of Anonymizer.com, a La Mesa company that allows people to surf the Web and send e-mail anonymously, said it's easy to snoop on Internet users. And if Echelon -- or anyone else, for that matter -- is getting an eyeful of your e-mail, you probably wouldn't know it.
Unlike a wiretapped phone, he said, "there are no mysterious clicks or buzzes on the wire."