How Does the ECHELON Surveillance System Works?

How Does the ECHELON Surveillance System Works?

The ECHELON surveillance system is a purported intelligence program involving the development and operation of a top-secret global surveillance network by five signatories of the UKUSA Agreement—Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. It was publicly disclosed in 1988 by investigative journalist Duncan Campbell, and later expositions from journalists, government officials, and even the European Parliament seemingly confirmed its existence.

The Early Operational Structure of the ECHELON Program and the Entire System

In his 1998 article, Campbell provided an overview of how the early ECHELON surveillance system works during the Second World War and the Cold War. Under the UKUSA Agreement, the signatory countries were given the task to monitor transmissions and coordinate signals intelligence in assigned regions of the world.

The U.S. National Security Agency initially supervised the entire program. It was also responsible for covering the transmissions in the Soviet Union and most of the Americas. On the other hand, the Global Communications Headquarters of the British intelligence was responsible for monitoring and coordination in Europe, Africa, and other parts of the Soviet Union. Another listening network in Australia coordinated the monitoring of transmissions in the South Pacific and Southeast Asia.

Each participating country operates several computer centers. Using supercomputers that run a particular software, the intercepted transmissions are subjected to a keyword search. These keywords include single words, phrases, and names, among others related to military activities, drug trafficking and other crimes, trade of embargoed goods and other dual-use technology, and economic activities.

Current Technological Considerations for the Surveillance System

The 2001 report based on the investigation of the European Parliament argued that long-distance and technology-aided communications are possible to intercept as long as the interceptor can access the involved medium.

According to the report, a long-distance technology-aided communication uses any of the following mediums: air for sound waves, light for fiber optic transmission, electric current used in telegraph and telephone, and electromagnetic waves such as radio waves and microwaves for wireless communications.

Both the 1996 exposition made by journalist Nick Hacker and the 1998 report from the European Parliament that was discussed further in the 2001 report of the EP investigation mentioned that wiretapping and the use of receiver satellites are critical in intercepting communications from the mediums mentioned above.

Interception using the ECHELON surveillance system works by wiretapping telecommunication lines or cables placed under the sea, or by positioning listening devices or satellites in strategic locations across the globe.

Of course, wiretapping has become more impossible due to the advances in digital communication technology. The growing complexity of communication lines and network gateways across the globe has also made wiretapping an outdated technology.

For instance, note that all global Internet communications were once routed in the U.S. before. This allowed intelligence organizations to easily intercept a substantial portion of Internet communications transpiring in Europe. Routing now transpires in different regions of the world. This has rendered wiretapping inefficient and ineffective.

Listening satellites now fill the void left by wiretapping. In 1999, the former director of the Defense Signals Directorate of Australia revealed that UKUSA signatories use satellites positioned over the Indian and Pacific oceans to intercept electronic communications. This system has become more feasible because most of the long-distance communications now transpire using satellites.

Using the satellites, the system allegedly works like a giant scanner that hovers satellite communications from ground stations across the globe. Upon interception, the communications are fed into supercomputers that contain the software for searching keywords and flagging suspected messages.

Summary: How Does the ECHELON Surveillance System Works?

The ECHELON surveillance system is an intelligence program developed under the UKUSA agreement. Central to the objective of this program is the development and operation of a top-secret global surveillance network by Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Reports and expositions revealed that the ECHELON surveillance system works by intercepting communications or transmissions using relevant technologies. For example, earlier iterations of the ECHELON program relied on wiretapping technologies, but complexities in modern telecommunication networks have made satellite technologies more feasible alternatives.

With regard to the actual operational framework of the ECHELON program, intelligence organizations or agencies from the five UKUSA countries intercept transmissions using systems assembled and operated in different parts of the world. These organizations share the intercepted transmissions with one another and continuously subject them to a keyword search.

The keyword search references the ECHELON dictionaries to find suspicious words. In other words, after intercepting the transmissions, supercomputers perform a search and flag up any messages containing the suspicious keywords. The flagged transcriptions are recorded and transcribed for further analysis.


  • Campbell, D. 2015. “My Life Unmasking British Eavesdropper.” The Intercept. Available online
  • Campbell, D. 1988. “They’ve Got It Taped.” New Statesman. Available via PDF
  • Campbell, D. and Honigsbaum, M. 2015. “Britain and U.S. Spy on World.” The Guardian. Available online
  • Schmidt, G. 2001. On the Existence of a Global System for the Interception of Private and Commercial Communications. Temporary Committee on the ECHELON Interception System, European Parliament. Available online
  • Woolsey, R. J. 2000. “Why We Spy On Our Allies.” The Wall Street Journal. Available online
  • Wright, S. 1998. An Appraisal of Technologies of Political Control. Directorate General for Research, European Parliament. Available online