Two confidential and one secret memo from the US National Security Agency (NSA) recently obtained by the Electronic Privacy Information Centre (EPIC) imply that the Agency does gather an enormous amount of data, an observation which in turn suggests that the global surveillance network known as ECHELON really does exist.
The memos offer guidance to NSA staff for reporting on intercepted signals in which US persons are mentioned. In one, dealing with former US President Jimmy Carter's 1994 trip to Bosnia, staff are warned that because Carter was travelling as a private citizen, and not in any official capacity, references to him by name in the raw data would have to be changed to 'a US person' in the reports.
If Carter were later asked to serve in an official capacity, the designation could be tightened to 'a former US president', the memo advises.
Another memo warns that as the 1996 elections approached, foreign chatter about US political candidates would be inevitable. If these mentions were included in reports, only generic terms such as 'a US Senate candidate' or 'a US political party' would be allowed.
A third deals with Hillary Clinton, noting that since a US Court of Appeals ruled that she is a full-time government official, chatter naming her may be reported using any of her official titles, but not her name.
The good news here is that the NSA seems quite scrupulous about staying within its patch and avoiding compiling data on private US citizens as the law requires.
The bad news is that they seem to be swimming in data generated by virtually everyone with a telephone, a computer or a fax machine. Sceptics will be forgiven for holding onto suspicion, as it is impossible to forget that as recently as 1975 the NSA was scandalised for maintaining illegal surveillance records on numerous US citizens, as revealed during Senate Intelligence Committee hearings held that year.
An outraged Congress quickly voted itself oversight authority over the NSA, set guidelines, and has been keeping tabs ever since. The memos suggest that for now, at least, Congressional oversight is working as it should. But they also suggest that the Agency has a tremendous and potentially dangerous power to snoop on just about everyone. ®