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Echelon is a network of surveillance stations stitched together in the 1970’s by the United States’ National Security Agency in conjunction with Australia, Great Britain, Canada, and New Zealand. These are intended to intercept select satellite communications, according to recently declassified information in Washington.

Echelon had been set up as a military system, dating originally from 1948, to eavesdrop on the Soviet Union and its allies in the cold war. Today, according to some, it appears that the network has been diverted to the purposes of economic espionage and for keeping a watch on competitors.”

The computers watch and listen for key words in telephone, fax, and Internet communications, and route intercepted messages on a topic requested by a participating country.

Echelon came into the public view with the publication today of an 18-page report, which was written by a freelance journalist, Duncan Campbell, and based in large part on other newspaper accounts, and said Echelon had been used by the United States to gain the advantage in at least two deals that involved major European companies.

Mr. Campbell described Echelon as a vast coordinated system that includes a system of satellites and at least 10 listening posts worldwide that can intercept telephone calls, e-mails. and faxes. The report drew skepticism from conservative parliamentarians, some of whom said it had failed to provide sufficient proof.

Press reports from 1995, according to Mr. Duncan, said information learned through Echelon had been given to Boeing and McDonnell Douglas when they were trying to win a $6 billion contract from Saudi Arabia. His report said the spy network had intercepted calls between Airbus, the European consortium, and the Saudi airline and government officials.

Mr. Campbell also said spy information had helped an American company, Raytheon, win a bid for a $1.3 billion surveillance system for the Amazon forest away from Thomson-CSF, a French company.

In recent years, Echelon has been criticized in the United States as an excessive intrusion into the private communications of Americans and their allies. Some critics said the system emerged from the cold war as a Big Brother without a cause.

On the Internet, Echelon has achieved a mythical status as a spying arm of the American government. A “Jam Echelon Day” was declared in October, and people around the world sent a huge volume of communications over the Internet and on the telephone using words like “terrorism” that they presumed were key words and would overload the system.

R. James Woolsey Jr., who headed the CIA from 1993 to 1995, said in Washington that “basically the United States does not conduct industrial espionage.” But he noted that the government might look into some economic areas, like questions of bribery.

“You collect intelligence on bribery by some of our friends abroad and then you tell the U.S. government so they can try to get the other government not to award the contract,” Mr. Woolsey said at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But you don’t go to the American corporation and say ‘Hey, you’re about to lose…’”

While the world at large is just hearing of this technology and however- present the technology has become, many of those trying to do business in France, South Korea, Japan and China have known for quite some time that a prospective bidder cannot send their documents to a local office (in France, Japan, China or South Korea) without losing a presumed privacy. ALL OF THESE TYPES OF TRANSMISSION ARE INTERCEPTED, READ, AND PASSED ON TO DOMESTIC INDUSTRY FOR ACTION. This has been going on for years, and the naiveté about how the information is intercepted and used is ridiculous.

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