The ECHELON trail — Part One: An illegal vision

By Steve Wright1, Surveillance & Society, 2005


This article tells the story behind the uncovering of the US operated global telecommunications interceptions system now known as ECHELON. It begins with the use of fieldwork techniques in the early 1970’s exploring the configuration of Britain’s Post Office towers – these were ostensibly the microwave links through which Britain’s long distance telephone calls were made. This modelling process revealed a system within the system of microwave towers linked to the American base of Menwith Hill in the North York Moors. All the key researchers were then promptly arrested, a raid by Special Branch on the author’s university at Lancaster ensued and later a show trail for the other main researchers, most notably Duncan Campbell. Eventually in 1988, Duncan wrote up the ECHELON story, which for its time was an incredible piece of detective work using materials lifted from waste bins by the women activists campaigning around the Menwith Hill Base. Little notice was taken until 1997 when an obscure book by Nicky Hager, Secret Power explained the role and function of ECHELON in more depth. The author represented these findings in a policy report to the European Parliament on the technology of political control that led to a process of political debate and disagreement of the ethics of such a system which continues even today.


Studies of surveillance are challenging, and often demand a sustained research commitment. It is no coincidence that many of the key British researchers active in this field in the early 1970’s remain so today. I am currently still working on issues of what are essentially tools of social and political control – both professionally as an Associate Reader at Leeds Metropolitan University in the Praxis Centre, ethically as a lecturer in the School of Applied Global Ethics and politically as chair of the Board of Trustees of Privacy International.

This article describes how I became engrossed in studying ‘technologies of political control’, and tracked the members of the security industrial complex, responsible for proliferating it to some of the world’s most unsavoury regimes. More specifically, it relates how a lowly postgraduate researcher stumbled across the entrails of a global telecommunications interception system; precipitated the first Special Branch police raid on a British University; provoked the first ever parliamentary debate on the British secret police; and accidentally detonated a worldwide political and ethical debate on the existence of a futuristic global electronic spying network, now known as ‘ECHELON’. In relating my personal experience of researching the ECHELON trail, I hope to illustrate how many of the challenges facing surveillance scholars during critical periods of their work can be faced and eventually overcome without the researcher becoming part of the food chain of the process they are watching.

ECHELON is a (now out-of-date) code name given to the US National Security Agency’s worldwide facility for the mass interception of electronic telecommunications including, phone, fax and email using key words and context. It works on the basis that other telecommunication links can be used to siphon off messages travelling by satellite, microwave relay link or fibre optic cable, if they intercept such streams at a key node, and can work at a prodigious rate of more that 2 million intercepts per hour. Essentially, the system can work because for some of its journey, telecommunications traffic is travelling as an electronic stream that can be intercepted if the appropriate infrastructure is in place. However, the current wisdom is that ECHELON does not exist in the way it was originally construed but is a now thought to be a collection of subsets of interception capabilities using a range of code names of which we remain ignorant. Nevertheless, for the sake of simplicity, it makes sense to continue to use the generic label ‘ECHELON’ whilst recognizing that new surveillance algorithms have evolved since the early researchers built their crude paradigms.

My interest in surveillance studies began over three decades ago when no such field existed. I was a student at Manchester University on an unusual course, entitled ‘Liberal Studies in Science’. The course attempted to bridge the communication gap between science and the humanities, and create ‘literate scientists’ (in the wake of C.P Snow’s famous critique of the ‘two cultures’). The training given by the course certainly paid off in the years which followed, since it enabled its students to look at specific technical problems with perspectives from many different disciplines.

I became fascinated by the process of technology assessment: the attempt to examine unforeseen impacts of technological innovation. For example, the course examined nuclear arms races, and the parallels with arms races emerging in counter-insurgency conflicts, which were then in the news, fired my imagination. The course’s coverage of the Vietnam War highlighted a new generation of military systems which had potential domestic uses such as helicopter-mounted flight stabilized CCTV night vision cameras, already beginning to find a market in policing the U.S. home front.

At the same time on the UK home front, the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science (BSSRS) was just beginning to examine the deployment of new weapons and technologies in the burgeoning ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland: a province that was about to become the most surveilled zone in Europe. BSSRS conceptualized this new equipment as a ‘technology of political control’. According to BSSRS, this technology encompassed new crowd control technologies designed to appear safe (rather than be safe), new torture technologies designed to induce psychological breakdown; and new surveillance and telecommunication systems that provided a powerful nervous system for ‘the strong state’.

A Fledgling Researcher

Managing the transition from being someone who is broadly interested in social and political matters to a so-called ‘surveillance scholar’ is not a simple matter. It’s hardly a direct process, and the zigzags require a talent for organising adequate time, resources and relationship issues that can potentially blight the career of any fledgling researcher.

More important than any of these practical difficulties is the matter of personal determination which, in any new field, hovers precariously close to obsession if the contribution is to sustain. In the case of the field research on ECHELON, which, in the early days, was largely to do with the orientation of aerials, this obsession risks being classified as Asperger’s syndrome of which collecting images of antennae can, in some cases, be symptomatic! The syndrome is worth looking up to see if you have these symptoms – but essentially the complaint involves an inward obsession, some impairments in social interaction and repetitive behaviour patterns – named after Hans Asperger (1906–1980), an Austrian paediatrician.

Nevertheless, whatever leads to the strong motivation to study a particular strand of surveillance must be more powerful than the inevitable setbacks that will emerge along the way, including no money, no recognition, no job and no progress. This has probably changed somewhat today since surveillance studies have become more mainstream. Yet it is still reasonable to suggest that for the new or less established scholar, the more controversial the study, the more likelihood there is of roadblocks and the higher the need for networks and support. However, some of the most cutting-edge conceptualization is always done alone. Indian philosophers have a term for it –Tapasia – or straightening by fire.

I can trace my own motivation back to the summer of 1973, when I experienced in India what in retrospect I can only describe as epiphany (see below). It was an intense time. I was travelling East through Afghanistan during the summer holidays and there was a coup d’etat on my 21st birthday. I was out on the streets of Kabul and managed to snatch a picture of the new President Muhammad Daoud. If I could have got across the Khyber Pass and delivered the picture to Reuters, it would have paid for the entire trip. Alas my film was taken at gun point a few minutes later by one of his armed guards, which was an early lesson in the power and politics of stolen images in a time of revolution. My later work was to focus on obtaining good evidence of the deployment of certain technologies, an activity that depends, paradoxically, on the use of surveillance technology to contradict more official claims of what was going on.

Today I see all politics as flows of information, management, manipulation and paradigm change: in my view those who control information control the physical world too. Back then it emerged into my thinking in an almost mystical way, in one of the most sacred Hindu towns of India, Benares. I was watching a never-ending stream of bodies being brought on to the burning grounds for incineration. It was a smoking vision of Hell with semi-naked figures turning over the corpses to burn them more effectively. What was once a human face was cleanly lifted off the skull – the mask of life was now rendered into fried meat. We all end up as ashes but even here, the ashes were being eaten by pyre dogs feeding on bits of backbone with loose remnants of human flesh hanging off.

I had a semi-visionary experience of witnessing a scene from Bosch. ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ had turned sour and I was left wondering whether any of us could ever make a difference to such a revolting production line. It became a metaphor. My meditation turned to war and the accelerating, endless, disgusting waste of it all. I felt I wanted to make a stand against a technological determinism that turned us into helpless watchers or worse, collaborators. With just £20 in my pocket, I made the long journey home and a determination never to give up.

Within two years I had focussed my research on new social control and death technologies. New weapons for internal control were emerging for sub-state conflict control during counter revolutionary operations whilst to me unbelievably hideous fragmentation weapons containing thousands of razorblade-like flechettes were being evolved for more conventional warfare – with civilians being the inevitable consumers.

I was convinced that much of the crowd control and ‘torture lite’ technology I had begun to research in Northern Ireland would be adapted and adopted eventually by all states wishing to technically fix their social and political problems. (This has indeed been the case and much of the technology used in Northern Ireland now forms part of the burgeoning crowd control and internal security sales market. The sensory deprivation based ‘torture lite’ techniques developed in Northern Ireland have most recently found their way into the US Guantanamo Bay internment camps in Cuba and to Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq.

None of this early research exploration could be followed very adequately at the undergraduate level of degree I was then pursuing in the UK. Determined to find a new niche, I decided to follow a course of postgraduate study. Unfortunately, my degree level was insufficient to justify finance. My thesis was so difficult to assess by conventional criteria, after debate amongst the examiners, it was upgraded from a poor level pass, to what was essentially a distinction grade. This was largely because of the sheer vision of political control technologies it had sought to encompass. The British degree system uses face to face meetings with external examiners in cases where there is any doubt. I had such an interview in 1975 where alas, I had a technical argument with my external examiner, Brian Flowers, who was later to become Chancellor of Manchester University. So that was that. I was out in the cold and had to find less academic work. However, Flowers did suggest that even though I was a hot-headed young man I should find a way of pursuing my research. Just weeks later, I was employed by the University’s Gardening Centre and as luck would have it ended up sweeping the roads just outside my old department in the Maths Tower. One day, the Head of the Department, Professor Michael Gibbons walked by, and seeing my lowly station remarked, “that’ll teach you to argue with Brian Flowers.!”

But serendipity can play a fateful role in any researcher’s life: the key lesson is to accept the blows but never give up. Fortunately, I had found a place where I could do the research work I wanted and was accepted at Lancaster University’s Programme of Peace and Conflict Research. In the meantime, I’d noticed an article in the Guardian that said that Brian Flowers was being considered to be the next scientific advisor to the government.

I wrote to Brian Flowers saying I had followed his advice, had found a suitable course to continue my research and perhaps he could suggest where I might find the resources to follow it through? Lesser men in authority would have dismissed such a cheeky request from an eccentric student determined to follow an unusual research topic: ‘Social Control and Death Technologies.’ To his credit, and my everlasting gratitude, the now Lord Sir Brian Flowers found a way of assisting the funding of my studies in that crucial first year, through a grant from the Society for Education in the Applications of Science. Without that essential first funding, I would have lost so much impetus. Timing is often everything but I’ve never lost that early lesson in the vital skill of fund raising, that every critical researcher must learn.

The Programme of Peace and Conflict Research

By October 1976 I was ready to travel to Lancaster University. It had been an eventful year. I had married in the 1975, a son had been born the following spring, but I had secured a place, finance, a house and a creative supervisor, Dr. Paul Smoker. Yet the single-minded need to relentlessly pursue the research took its toll on the time I devoted to my family. From my perspective, a year would soon go and only solid research progress would yield any chance of future funding from the SSRC. I didn’t realize how important family support is during any period of active interference by state agencies in the research process, nor did I comprehend the realities of family members being a vulnerable flank through which any research activist can be attacked.

In times of political turbulence like now, it is especially important that researchers discuss such personal security matters with their families and agree their limits, fears and expectations. If I’d known what was in store, I would have remained a temporary assistant gardener but during those early days I enjoyed a sweet freedom to follow my research. I soon built a useful network of key individual researchers and NGO’s, many of whom I am still working with to this day.

The Director of the Programme of Peace and Conflict Research, Dr. Paul Smoker was one of the founding fathers of modern peace research. Indeed he set up the first UK based peace research centre at Langthwaite House on the back road between Galgate and Caton in the early Sixties. I had cause to pass the old buildings of this first centre as I bicycled my way home from the university to the small village of Brookhouse where I then lived. What caught my attention was that Langthwaite was now surrounded by antennae and in an adjacent field there was a larger radio mast with a dish and a horn, which the locals believed was a colour TV relay station: it wasn’t. The route towards challenging that local piece of folklore would involve rethinking technical capacity available for telecommunications interception, and the way that technological creep broke the boundaries of authorised tapping, checks and balances into something completely new.

Tomorrow: The ECHELON trail — Part Two: Truth lies open to all?

1. Praxis Centre for the Study of Information &Technology for Peace, Conflict Resolution & Human Rights, Leeds Metropolitan University, School of Information Management, s.t.wright[at]

(This article originally appeared in Surveillance & Society 3 (2/3) in 2005 and is republished here with the permission of the author.)

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