Overloading Big Brother

'Hacktivists' Try to Short-Circuit the Spooks

Big Brother could get an earful this week. On Thursday, cyber activists are calling on Netizens around the world to help gum up the shadowy global electronic surveillance system known as Echelon. Operated by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) in conjunction with the signals intelligence agencies of Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, Echelon reportedly uses a global network of spy satellites and high-tech listening stations to intercept vast amounts of e-mail, fax, and phone conversations. The communications are routed to a powerful computer network run by the NSA which filters for keywords like, say, "terrorism" or "Bin Laden." Communiqués flagged by the system are then forwarded to teams of round-the-clock analysts in the five member countries, who scrutinize them for subversive activity.

No one really knows to what extent all communications are monitored; indeed, the NSA refuses to acknowledge that Echelon even exists. But the system has come under fire both abroad and at home, as privacy advocates, civil libertarians, and members of Congress raise concerns about Echelon's Orwellian capacities. Though legally the NSA is prohibited from monitoring U.S. citizens without a special warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the system operates in total secrecy, so who's to say whom the spies are spying on? In the U.K., for example, British spooks have accused their own intelligence agency of regularly using Echelon to tap domestic groups like Amnesty International and Christian Aid.

Enter the hacktivists. Their plan: get as many folks as they can to send e-mails containing at least 50 keywords— such as "Mossad" or "bomb"— which they believe will trigger the system and send it into overdrive.

"We aren't specifying what keywords to use because we're trying to encourage people to be as creative as possible," says Robert Kemp, a member of the Hacktivist listserv (http://hacktivism.tao.ca), where the idea for Jam Echelon Day emerged. Another tactic is to send encrypted messages to hotspots like Jakarta, since encryption is also believed to trigger surveillance. (For more info on the action, see www.echelon.wiretapped.com.)

"Obviously, we're not going to blow out the mainframes, but the idea is to create a large workload for [the system], and maybe slow things down," Kemp explains. Since the original call was posted on the Web last month, it's been translated into French, German, and Russian, and has been circulating widely on listservs in New Zealand, France, and the U.K., Kemp says.

The NSA declined to comment, though a spokesperson said she'd heard about the action. But surveillance experts doubt the protest will even register. "This is a system that filters terabytes of data a day against tens of thousands of known criteria," notes Duncan Campbell, an investigative journalist who produced an extensive report on Echelon for the European Parliament. "While I welcome the action politically, on a technical level, I don't think it will have the slightest effect."

That doesn't deter the hactivists. "The real point of this action is to make people aware that Echelon isn't some nebulous conspiracy theory, but a major civil-rights issue," says Kemp. "We want there to be a bipartisan effort in Congress to see if Echelon is monitoring U.S. civilian Internet traffic." House and Senate members are currently finalizing an amendment to the Intelligence Authorization Act, which would force the NSA, CIA, and Justice Department to spell out legal standards for electronic surveillance. Hearings could begin early next year.

 
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