Surveillance and the interception

of communications

Chris Bailey (LabourNet UK)

States all over the world have always carried out surveillance. They see it as an essential part of their existence. Many businesses also see surveillance as indispensable, both to find out what their rivals are doing and to keep watch on their employees as part of maintaining control over them.

Both business and state surveillance is often aimed at the organised labour movement. A large proportion of employers spying on workers is directed towards undermining union activity. Governments also regularly direct surveillance at the labour movement, particularly when they perceive the state to be threatened. There is evidence of state interception of telephone and email communications during the Korean general strike in 1996-97. Governments in Europe and North America claim to be much more democratic and try to deny they carry out similar activity against the labour movement. However, even the official British government figures on phone tapping reveal otherwise. We are told that phone tapping is only aimed at serious crime. But, the figures show a very big peak in 1984-85. Why? Was there a big increase in drug smuggling or murder in this period? Of course not; it is obvious that the increased phone tapping was directed against the British miners strike. The miners serious crime was to fight for their jobs and livelihoods.

Interception of communications, known as comint, is a major aspect of surveillance. As communication systems have become more sophisticated the methods of interception have also become more advanced. Governments around the world spend huge sums of money on developing and using interception techniques. Globally, it is estimated that about 15-20 billion dollars is spent annually in this way.*1)

*1) {{Duncan Campbell. Interception Capabilities 2000. Report to the European Parliament. Summary Page. Available at}}

It is vital that labour movement bodies, particularly those involved in communications, try to maintain up-to-date knowledge of comint methods if they are to guard against having sensitive material read. Sometimes such knowledge can provide easy remedies for some threats to information security. To take just a simple example: Most people are aware that an unscreened computer monitor will interfere with a radio placed near it. What they probably dont know though is that equipment exists that can detect such interference and use it to reconstruct the contents of a computer screen from up to 100 metres away. It is widely available to intelligence agencies. Just one small sheet of aluminium baking foil can shield the offending monitor and stop this particular security leak.

Whilst it is important not to become paranoid about security, it should be taken very seriously. We need to develop our own labour movement specialists to advise on these questions, drawing upon the knowledge of experts around the world who are worried about the use of surveillance by governments and business. Some of the key people involved in developing new communications technology see their work as having a tremendous potential for democratising society. They are concerned that those acting against civil liberties are undermining this. For instance, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, told a British Internet magazine:

"Personally, I feel that the arguments for a fundamental human right for two people to have a private conversation even at a distance outweigh the very serious fears of it being used by criminals and terrorists. When constitutions were drawn up, the right to have private conversations wasnt included because it was so darn obvious that you could just go in a cornfield and have one. Its a much better basis for society than having to have a third party listen in."*2)

*2) {{Internet Magazine. June 1998.}}

Labour needs to take its place within the wide movement of opposition to surveillance that already exists. It is vital that we ally with other social movements over this issue.

To learn how surveillance through comint takes place we need to examine the information that has been gathered about existing systems. In particular we need to look at what is by far the largest comint system in the world. It is called ECHELON. It was first developed jointly by the American and British governments. After collaboration in intercepting German wartime communications, the UK and USA made a secret agreement in 1947, known simply as UKUSA, to build global comint facilities. Three other countries Canada, Australia and New Zealand later joined UKUSA. The last two were particularly needed for monitoring Pacific Region communications.

A large number of other governments around the world have invested heavily in developing their comint abilities. Russia has a substantial system. So does China. Many Middle Eastern and Asian countries have developed significant systems. However, none of these compare with the enormous resources of ECHELON. By examining what is known about this system we can get some idea of techniques used by the others, which are considerably less advanced.

The core of ECHELON is a global chain of listening posts. These monitor and process data and voice communications from all over the world. Modern communications uses several different means for transmission. ECHELON intercepts almost all of them. Let us consider each in turn.

In the early days of ECHELON probably most communication was via cable. Governments involved in ECHELON built tapping facilities into the cable systems. In Britain, until recently, these were mainly owned by the state. In the US, the National Security Agency (NSA) entered into a series of secret agreements with private cable companies for tapping facilities. This activity was initiated in 1945 and was codenamed operation SHAMROCK. It remained unknown for 30 years until it was exposed through enquiries made because of the Watergate scandal.

The US uses submarines operating deep down in the worlds oceans to tap undersea cables belonging to countries not in ECHELON. The first submarine designed for this purpose was the USS Halibut, which started work in 1971 against the Russians. In 1979 it was joined in its activities by USS Parche. This submarine has carried on with its cable tapping operations until the present day. Its continuing value to the Clinton government can be estimated by the fact that its crew was highly commended every year from 1994 to 1997.*3)

*3) {{Interception Capabilities 2000. Page 9.}}

A high percentage of modern communication uses microwave transmission, either via communication satellites or using intermediate land based relays. Either way, by accident or design, an enormous amount of the signals go into space, because microwaves dont bounce off the ionosphere. ECHELON monitors all signals passing through the worlds communications satellites and at the same time uses over 120 satellites of its own to capture microwave spillage signals transmitted into space. Some of these satellites consist of giant parabolic antennae that unfold in space. They target all forms of microwave communications including the latest mobile phone and pager signals.

As though this is not enough, an ECHELON monitoring station has recently been exposed in Britain that used a different technique. A specially constructed building, looking quite ordinary on the outside, had been placed in the path of a major microwave link. It was designed so the signals passed through it with hardly any interference, but could be monitored by equipment in the building. The building monitored all communication traffic to and from Ireland. This is in clear breech of international and European Union agreements between Britain and Ireland and the Irish government is preparing to take action over this.

ECHELON also monitors Internet traffic. Much of this work is carried out by US military intelligence. The vast bulk of it is done by simply collecting openly accessible material. Usenet traffic is monitored and computer robots using the same techniques as search engines such as Alta Vista regularly visit web-sites. In this case, however, the robots are compiling material of interest to ECHELON. Most labour movement web-sites have probably discovered that they get regular visits by these military robots. They may also have noticed that these visits happen more often when anything of interest to the US security or military establishment is occurring on the site. LabourNet had a dramatic increase when it was reporting the Harb-Is strike of workers at US military bases in Turkey.

Private email cannot be read in this way. It also cannot be monitored in the same way other communications traffic is. This is because it consists of scattered packets that have to be put back together to make a coherent message. However, because it still forms the main backbone of the Internet, an enormous amount of email traffic passes through the US. A former NSA employee has revealed that specialised software has been installed to collect traffic at nine major Internet exchange points (IXPs) in the US.*4) There is evidence to show that GCHQ, the British establishment that operates within ECHELON, has been attempting to gain access to the main IXP in Britain and may have already done so. There seems little doubt that ECHELON is able to reassemble Internet email packets to monitor private email correspondence.

*4) {{Ibid. Page 10.}}

ECHELONs monitoring produces a vast amount of material that has to be scanned and filtered to obtain a relatively tiny amount of communications of interest to the governments involved. In the case of data transmissions this is done by searching for key words. Dictionaries of these key words are updated on a regular basis. Voice communication is monitored in a different way. Speech recognition software is not good enough to recognise key words. Voice recognition is used instead to pinpoint the voice fingerprints of targeted individuals.

What are the main purposes of this vast surveillance operation? The initial justification for it was undoubtedly the Cold War. The central target for ECHELON was originally the Soviet Union and its allies. However, it has always had other uses as well. It gives considerable economic advantages to the countries operating it. They are able to obtain information about the economic plans of governments and businesses in other countries. This use of ECHELON has intensified considerably since the end of the Cold War.

At the same time, ECHELON plays a major role in US foreign policy and its attempts to police the world. It means that the US is often much better informed about movements of social unrest in other countries than their own governments are. This information can be used to support governments that are favourable to the US and to oppose those that are not.

One very interesting document that relates to this question should be studied by everyone involved in social justice campaigning work using the Internet. It was produced for US military intelligence and is called The Zapatista Social Netwar in Mexico.*5) It shows how activists from a wide range of social movements, operating particularly through the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), were able to affect the course of events in Mexico and stop the Mexican army from defeating and destroying the Zapatista guerrilla army. The document calls for the development of new methods by the US military to counter the work of what it calls netwarriors, who use the Internet for social campaigning purposes. It believes the military needs to do this so it can come to the assistance of governments friendly to the US and its free market policies that become threatened by Netwar. A central point in the document concerns the need to closely monitor the activity of social movement campaigners using the Internet. This points to a very real use of ECHELON against movements working for social justice. It is doubtful if the study itself could have been produced without information already gained through US state spying on Internet activity. It shows much more knowledge than the Mexican government itself had of what was behind the international movement that developed in support of the Zapatista army.

*5) {{}}

ECHELON activity is carried out by military and state intelligence services. Law enforcement bodies, such as the police, are not involved and do not have access to the information obtained. The main reason for this concerns US law. Technically, it is only legal for US military and intelligence services to direct their spying activities on foreign countries and not against US citizens. Although the NSA has had to admit that messages to and from American citizens have been picked up in the course of gathering foreign intelligence*6). Page 5., it does have to maintain at least some pretence of obeying the law. Because of this, the FBI is not allowed access to ECHELON comint so it can not be used for police activity against US citizens. Similar situations exist in other countries involved in ECHELON. Because of this, police comint operations have been developed separately from those of the military and intelligence services. This may not be the case in some other countries operating comint systems.

*6) {{Interception Capabilities 2000}}

In Europe this has had the effect of bringing police comint operations, unlike those of the intelligence services, under the rule of law, at least in theory. In Britain, attempts by the police to use evidence obtained from phone tapping resulted in a successful legal action against them in the European Court of Human Rights in 1984. This action was brought under a section of the European Convention on Human Rights stating that interference in an individuals privacy could only take place in accordance with law. Because of this, the British government was forced to introduce the Interception of Communications Act (IOCA) in 1985. This Act defined the circumstances under which the police could intercept communications. In theory, it could only be used to combat serious crime. However, it specifically introduced a definition of serious crime that included an offence involving a large number of persons in pursuit of a common purpose. Such activities as civil disobedience, illegal strikes, demonstrations not approved by the police, and a whole range of other actions planned by groups campaigning for social justice, can all come under this definition.

In 1993, the FBI held an International Law Enforcement Seminar (ILETS) at its training school in Quantico, Virginia, for police representatives from a number of countries considered allies of the US. There it proposed long term plans to bring new forms of communication such as the Internet within police comint operations. It called for agreements to be made that future communications developments would include built in facilities to allow police interception.

Since this meeting the ILETS group has steered government and communications industry policy across the world. It has operated in secret and behind the back of elected parliaments. In Europe, ILETS policy has been implemented by closed meetings of the Council of Justice and Home Affairs (CJHA). In 1998 the European Ombudsman upheld a complaint by the civil rights organisation, Statewatch, that it had been wrongfully denied access to information concerning these meetings.

In 1996, the CJHA started pressing the European Commission to introduce European wide regulation of the Internet. The reason given for this intervention was alleged use of the Internet by a Belgian child pornography ring that had outraged public opinion in Europe. Subsequently the European Commission and the European Parliament introduced an Action Plan for Safer Use of the Internet calling for close co-operation between Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and the police to deal with illegal and harmful content. The debate on this plan took place without most of the Commission or Parliament knowing of the existence of the FBI plans or of the ILETS group. Leaked Enfopol documents have shown that the police throughout Europe are working to these plans. Elected parliaments and the ISPs themselves have been deceived about the real reasons police want ISP co-operation.

Individual governments in Europe are now introducing legislation to implement the ILETS plans. The first to do this was the Dutch government, but others are following closely behind them. In Britain, the government is proposing legislation giving the police powers to read private email via ISPs. They will be legally forced to allow the police access and could face jail sentences of up to five years for tipping-off anyone whose email is being read.

Both intelligence and police comint can be defeated by secure encryption. They are well aware of this and worldwide activity has taken place, led by the US government, to prevent effective encryption from being available. The most deceitful aspect of this has concerned secret agreements between the NSA and companies supposedly offering secure encryption. Facilities have been built into encryption systems to enable the NSA to bypass them. The major Swiss encryption company, Crypto AG, trusted because it was supposedly independent from US influence, was proved to have made such a secret deal with the NSA. Other companies shown to have co-operated with the NSA in a similar manner include Microsoft, Netscape and Lotus. In 1991, AT&T withdrew a telephone system containing secure encryption in favour of one using special clipper chips produced in co-operation with the NSA.

Although governments are being forced into a retreat on encryption, because of heavy pressure from business interests demanding secure systems, they are still determined to stop this from interfering with comint operations. In Britain, the government is now attempting to introduce jail sentences of up to two years for people believed to be withholding an encryption key from the police. This proposed legislation would break the basic principle of human rights that a person is innocent until proven guilty, since they would have to prove they didnt have a key to avoid a conviction.

The Internet has grown up as an area of relative free debate and discussion not under the control of governments and big business. Voices can be heard that are suppressed in other media. Many movements campaigning for social justice have taken advantage of this. Labour is only gradually realising the potential and has been much slower to do so than many other social movements. The danger for us now is that government regulation and policing of the Internet may close the tremendous possibilities before we have even begun to use them.

Movements already using the Internet for social campaigning work are becoming aware of the increasing threat to their activities from state surveillance and regulation. They are beginning to prepare ways of fighting back. It is essential that labour Internet activists work with them and assist them on this. Considerable debate is taking place within the APC on defending Internet rights and those of us operating within APC should involve ourselves in this discussion. GreenNet, the APC affiliate in Britain, is planning to lobby and campaign against the proposed legislation giving police access to email. They will be starting an online discussion on this which will include debate on the international implications of government and police surveillance of the Internet.

I hope this document can make labour media activists more aware of state surveillance and comint activity and alert them to the dangers over its extension to the Internet. We need to plan a labour response.