Montréal, le 12 septembre 1998
Numéro 20
(page 6) 
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       LE QUÉBÉCOIS LIBRE sollicite des textes d'opinion qui défendent ou contestent le point de vue libertarien sur n'importe quel sujet d'actualité. Les textes doivent avoir entre 700 et 1200 mots. Prière d'inclure votre titre ou profession, le village ou la ville où vous habitez, ainsi que votre adresse électronique.   
 by Ralph Maddocks
          ECHELON, a word which my dictionary defines as « the arrangement of troops as in the form of steps, with parallel divisions one in advance of the other », has another and much more sinister meaning. I refer of course to the system of snooping on telephone conversations, Internet, faxes and e-mails set up secretly in 1948 by that torch bearer of democracy the United States of America and its friends in Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain and Canada.  
          This agreement, whose contents are still secret after fifty years, provides for the US National Security Agency to locate satellites around the world and capture all microwave, cellular, fibre-optic and satellite traffic. The NSA then processes it all through some very large computers which include voice and optical character recognition capability and which look or listen for words or phrases which interest them. So if you inadvertently mention that your friend's new play was a bomb, some analyst will be listening your entire conversation to see in which context you were using that key word. If you mention some chemical terms that they find worrisome you can cause similar paroxysms of activity.  
Loud and clear 
          SIGINT, as this signals intelligence is known, is considered to be the most important form of intelligence gathering. It is also the most sensitive, since if discovered it can be embarrassing to both those sending the information and to those who are illicitly reading it. A nations's diplomatic, economic or other plans can be intercepted and read, even if they try to keep the information confidential by encoding it. SIGINT has five main sub-groups of which the one we are most interested in is COMINT, or communications intelligence. Traditionally, COMINT targeted the diplomatic correspondence of foreign nations and in the past the US intercepted the correspondence of its ally Great Britain during the Suez crisis of 1956. We have heard of similar interceptions of Libya's communications with East Germany in 1985 when a West Berlin nightclub was bombed and in the interception of Iraq's traffic with its embassy in Japan in the 1970's. 
          The US doesn't confine its interest to just embassy traffic, it looks at internal departmental traffic within a government, it is interested in ministerial communications, military, police and security services, arms factories and so on. So far you may conclude this may be no bad thing and some of the governments concerned probably deserve such treatment anyway. 
          However, ECHELON is designed for primarily non-military targets: governments, organizations, multinational corporations and businesses in virtually every country. They also target political parties and terrorist groups and those involved in the cultivation, production and distribution of narcotics. If you call yourself something like Quebeckers for Freedom or Liberty you could well attract the attention of one or more intelligence gathering operations. 
          Through the sharing of information among the signatories of the 1948 agreement each participant is able to retain what is euphemistically known as « plausible deniability ». For example the law in the USA forbids the gathering of intelligence on American citizens so that the NSA cannot legally listen in to the telephone traffic of a US resident. This presents no problem at all since the two main listening stations in the US are staffed and operated by intelligence officials « on loan » from a friendly government. When information about a US citizen is discovered, the official simply walks down the corridor and gives it to his US counterpart, thus circumventing the domestic proscription. 
From the US to the UK 
          The largest intelligence gathering station in the entire world is at Menwith Hill in Yorkshire, England, and is wholly operated by the NSA. Menwith is tasked with monitoring all cross Atlantic and European communications traffic. A year ago British Telecom accidentally released some top secret documents to the defense lawyers of two trespassers on Menwith Hill. The documents showed that the three main optical fibre cables in the UK – each carrying 100,000 calls at any point in time – actually pass through the Menwith facility to facilitate spying on UK citizens. According to a press report of the time the judge was quite unhappy with the telephone company and made the astonishing statement that « the national interest of the United Kingdom, even if it is conducted dishonestly, requires this to be kept a secret ». 
          This and other discoveries made by « friendly » governments has enraged most European countries and in France, Italy and Germany there have been loud protestations. These same countries do not mention that in 1995 the EU states signed a memorandum of understanding (still classified) to set up a new international telephone tapping network. Nor do they mention that the initiative to do this apparently came from the US, at least if one is to believe a report in the New York Times published last February. 
          The current battle over the right to sell technology which enables ordinary, and not so ordinary, people to encode their communications is directly related to this world wide, US led, interference in the privacy of the citizenry. Much of the debate revolves around the wish of the police and other government snoopers to be able to read encrypted messages. They are proposing that if you use such encoding schemes you must deposit the key with them so that they can read your correspondence should they wish. Rather like your local police chief asking for the key to your house « just in case they need to enter it ». Supported by the RCMP and other security groups, Industry Canada has proposed  policies which would prohibit  « ... the manufacture, import and use of non-key recovery products in Canada »; that « carriers of real-time telecommunications would be prohibited from transmitting messages unless in plaintext or encrypted by key-recovery hardware or software » and would prohibit the export of strong cryptography unless such « ...products had approved key-recovery provisions ». 
          It would seem that in this alleged best country in the world we may be in danger of seeing our rights to freedom of expression and association violated as well as our right to privacy. This in spite of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (sections 2, 7, 8), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (articles 17, 22) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (articles 12, 19, 20). 
          Makes you think, doesn't it? 
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