I Spy TroubleBy Erin Zimmerman and Dale Hurd
Thursday, February 10, 2000
Imagine a workplace that required you to pass a daily retinal scan ... and a monthly lie detector test, an office where snitching on suspicious co-workers is encouraged, and a job where the ultimate badge of honor is complete silence.
Welcome to the world of a spy.
In this top-secret world where just talking about your job could earn you a prison sentence, only one man has been willing to talk openly about his role in the global eavesdropping network known as ECHELON.
Retired intelligence officer Mike Frost spent 19 years collecting top-secret information at Canada's Communications Security Establishment (CSE), Canada's equivalent of America's National Security Agency. Frost remembers a time when ECHELON was still an idea without a name.
"The concept of five countries collecting everything that's radiated on this planet and reporting to a central base which the five countries can draw from -- the concept was there, and some experimental work was being done at the time," says Frost.
According to Frost, the information is then sorted according to specific key words.
"For instance, if we were after a terrorist activity, we would ask the computer to give us all communications containing the words 'bomb,' 'blow-up,' 'terrorize,' 'assassination,' and any communications containing those words, be it e-mail, be it voice mail, telephone, cell phone, portable phone, whatever," he says. "The computer would recognize that conversation as containing those words and give you either a recording of the conversation or a hard copy of the conversation."
But Frost, who was trained in the U.S. by the National Security Agency, says the eavesdropping is not necessarily limited to criminals or foreigners, as is required by both U.S. and Canadian laws.
"There is no distinction made whether you're a foreigner or not," he says. "That's a tough question, because never will the Canadian government or the American government admit that they can circumvent their legislation by asking other countries to do what they can't do for themselves. However, if you just look at how the system works -- if five countries do the collecting, if five countries input their common database that five countries can draw from, it's fairly easy to see how Canada can do things for the United States and vice versa that the countries can't do for themselves."
And although Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand all play crucial roles, Frost says there's no doubt about who's "driving the train," as Frost puts it.
"NSA drives the train," he says. "NSA is the conductor, NSA tells the train where to stop, and tells the passengers where to get off and where to get on."
According to Frost, this train is running full-speed into your private life. For example, here's what could happen if you use a so-called key word like "bomb," even in a private conversation.
"Somebody will pick it up," he says. "Communications know no borders. Somebody will pick it up somewhere, and it will end up on somebody's desk if you say the word 'bomb.' I guarantee it."
Case in point ...
"A lady was on the phone talking to her friend about a school play that she'd been to the night before; her son was in a school play," recalls Frost from his own experience. "And she thought he'd done a lousy job, and she said to her friend, 'Boy, he really bombed last night. And that conversation was highlighted and ended up on an analyst's desk the next morning because the word 'bomb' was in there, and all this lady was doing was talking about her son and his play the night before. Now that conversation of that lady is held at CSE indefinitely, so if two or three or four years later, she talks about somebody else bombing or something, and the computer spits it out again as being the second or third hit on this person's name, you can graduate from being a possible terrorist to a probable terrorist. It's that easy."
So what are the perks of being targeted as a "probable terrorist?"
"If the NSA says that you are a probable terrorist and passes that information on to those responsible for that sort of activity, just think about what could happen to your life, and you'd never know why. All of a sudden, your MasterCard doesn't work anymore; All the sudden, your phone is down; all of the sudden, things are falling apart in your life; and you have no reason why, and nobody'll ever tell you."
How deep can ECHELON go into someone's life?
"How deep do you want to go?" answers Frost. "Right down to the bowels, if you want. As far as you want to go, ECHELON can go into your private life -- that includes your private life with your doctor, your minister, your lawyer, your stock broker, your wife, your girlfriend, your children, your business partner, your business enemies -- as far as they want to go."
Both the United States and Canada officially deny that this massive spy network even exists. But Frost showed CBN News a station in Ottawa where such interceptions are part of the daily routine.
Intelligence experts say ECHELON is only one of many tools Big Brother can use to listen in on your life. In fact, with the right technology, government agencies can literally pull your personal information out of the air -- without ever touching your computer.
The procedure is code-named TEMPEST, and it's a trick Frost learned from the NSA. By simply aiming an antenna at your computer monitor, intelligence experts can use the radiation emitted by the monitor to reconstruct the images on your screen. No hacking, no passwords -- just another legal loophole.
"The law reads that it is unlawful to intercept intentionally radiated communications," explains Frost. "TEMPEST is unintentionally radiated, so it's therefore lawful, I suppose, to intercept this radiation. That is being done extensively throughout the world. You can imagine the implications if you park yourself outside a broker's office on Wall Street, or you go to the defense building or the CIA building and start intercepting TEMPEST radiation."
Speaking out about ECHELON has ultimately cost Mike Frost some of his own privacy.
"The pressure is being applied very subtly," he says. "Letters that arrive in an opened condition, strange things happening to my answering machine when I'm not even in the house -- it becomes unplugged or turned off, or turned on and plugged in, strange footprints on my carpet, very subtle things. Not that I can go to anyone and say somebody broke into my home, because there is no sign of forced entry in any way. Constantly, my friends will say, what's the matter with your phone; there's an echo. So these things are being done just to keep me on my toes a little bit, and I'm aware of that."
And he has a warning for anyone who says "it can't happen to me."
"If you don't want anybody to know about what you're saying, don't say it," Frost cautions. "Because if you do say it, somebody will be listening."