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Spy Network Eavesdrops on E-Mails; Protesters Try to Jam System
22 October 1999
WASHINGTON (AP) -- An ultra-secret spy network reportedly is eavesdropping on e-mails, looking for words suggesting terrorist plots and other nefarious acts, and prompting angry Internet users to try to overwhelm the listeners by flooding the system with fabricated messages.
In an attempt at electronic civil disobedience Thursday, organizers urged Internet users on dozens of Web sites and in discussion groups to bombard the U.S. National Security Agency with millions of e-mails with subversive-sounding language. "Give the (NSA) their keywords!" one person wrote.
It was unclear who thought up "Jam Echelon Day," as it was called in one message from an Australia-based Web site, but the intent was clear: Flood the NSA's powerful computers with enough suspicious traffic to crash them and disrupt the high-tech listening system, code-named "Echelon."
'Routine' message monitoring
A 1997 report commissioned by the European Parliament described "routine and indiscriminate" monitoring of fax, e-mail and telephone messages in Europe by the global spy network, which it said was coordinated by the NSA with the help of other nations' security organizations. A follow-up study for the European Union this year found the same thing.
Representative Bob Barr (R-Georgia), has said he supports congressional hearings to determine the scope of the spy network's capabilities and to prevent abuses. The network is said to include a listening station in Sugar Grove, West Virginia, about 250 miles from Washington.
The NSA, which is barred by law from spying on U.S. citizens, declined to comment Thursday on its network or the potential impact of the day's e-mail campaign.
"The agency doesn't discuss alleged intelligence operations," NSA spokeswoman Judith Emmel said. "It doesn't confirm or deny any Echelon-type technology."
But even supporters of the jamming campaign were pessimistic that their efforts would have much effect. They suggested the spy network was smart enough to ignore the e-mails typically sent with lists of random words, especially since many of the messages were in English -- not in Arabic or Indonesian, for example.
'Will not...have any effect'
"I think it will cause a lot of laughter up at NSA, to tell the truth," said Wayne Madsen of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center, who tracks news about Echelon. "If they seriously think they're going to bring the computers at the NSA to a grinding halt, they're going to be seriously disappointed."
"It will not, in fact, have any effect on their operations," agreed Duncan Campbell of Edinburgh, Scotland, who wrote the most recent report about Echelon for the EU. "They're used to electronic warfare and screening out noise put up by enemies. This is noise from dissenting citizens."
Supporters said even if their e-mail campaign didn't cause the NSA's computers to crash, it was important to raise awareness of the spy network's rumored abilities.
On the Internet, where conspiracy theorists flourish, it was impossible to count how many e-mails protesters might actually have sent, much less determine their effectiveness.
"I don't think we'll ever know," said Simon Davies, who heads London-based Privacy International, a human rights organization. "I would guess maybe it will be 10 years before we understand the ramifications of any civil disobedience campaign."
Copyright 1999. The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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