By: Arfa Abdul Razzaq
“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes” … this is how the original Latin phrase goes… literally translated to “Who will guard the guards?” This phrase kept running through my mind as I sat pondering over the new information I had acquired.
It all started when I read Dan Brown’s “Digital Fortress”. Naturally, the love for controversy especially where the US is concerned, runs in our blood and so when I read about a possible “Global surveillance” program by the US through which it spies on people around the world, my interest got stimulated and I set out to discover more. This is what I found out….
There is no doubt whatsoever that a global surveillance program exists, one that is highly advanced and possesses astounding capabilities. This surveillance program is code-named ECHELON. ECHELON is capable of intercepting and inspecting the contents of telephone calls, fax, emails and other data traffic globally through the interception of communication bearers like satellite transmissions and microwave links. This ECHELON program was initiated by the “Five Eyes” – a group of 5 countries namely the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Although ECHELON originally started out as a way to spy on the former Soviet Union during the Cold War, today it has evolved into a global system sweeping up massive amounts of private and commercial communications worldwide.
So what is ECHELON really?
The ECHELON system is fairly simple in design. Intercept stations are positioned all over the world to capture all satellite, microwave, cellular and fibre-optic communication traffic. Then this information is processed through the massive computer capabilities of the NSA (National Security agency) which includes Voice Recognition and Optical Character Recognition (OCR) programs. It is then further processed to look for code words or phrases that will then decide whether the message should be sent for further analysis.
The extraordinary ability of ECHELON in intercepting nearly all of the communication traffic in the world is breath-taking in its scope. But the real power of ECHELON resides in its ability to decrypt and examine these messages for analysis. As the electronic signals are brought into the station, they are fed through massive computer systems such as SILKWORTH where voice recognition, OCR and data information engines get to work. Another tool that is used to sort through text messages is PATHFINDER. It sifts through large databases of text – based messages looking for specific keywords or phrases. Similarly the highly advanced software – VOICECAST targets a person’s voice pattern so that every call that person makes in the future is transcribed for analysis. Using these and countless other programs ECHELON processes millions of messages every hour.
The story doesn’t just end with ECHELON though. The “Five Eyes” have numerous other program working with ECHELON… covering up the areas that might slip past ECHELON’s watchful eye. PRISM is one such example. PRISM collects internet communications from at least 9 different US companies including Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, Google, Paltalk, YouTube, AOL, Skype and Apple and sifts through the private conversations of these companies’ customers. TEMPORA is another system that extracts internet communications by tapping the fibre optic cables that make up the backbone of the internet and buffers them for processing later. TEMPORA is thus able to access virtually all of an internet user’s personal data. The amount of data accumulated by these programs is huge with around 97 billion pieces of intelligence obtained in March 2013 alone. Iran was the country from where the largest amount of intelligence was gathered at 14 bn, Pakistan was second with 13.5 bn, Jordan third with 12.6 bn, Egypt fourth with 7.6 bn and India fifth with 6.3 bn.
Privacy in today’s digital age has become a dream. All of our online lives are continuously monitored and scrutinised. Some might say “So what? Nothing to hide, nothing to fear” But as Edward Snowden said “Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say” Our privacy is not a matter to be taken lightly, but then again blaming the “Five Eyes” and rebuking them will accomplish nothing. Spewing hate towards the US or the UK for their invasions of our privacy will change nothing. What we, as the youth of PAKISTAN, a country known for its highly intelligent youth, need to do is find a way… a peaceful and logical way, to prevent these invasions of our privacy. Sure, this might seem a daunting task… we don’t really possess the technological capabilities to undertake such a formidable challenge but as it’s said “Everything is possible. The impossible just takes longer.”