Is it true that U.S. and Canadian federal law-enforcement agencies have a voice-activated system connected to local telephone networks that activates and records telephone conversations based on certain keywords? I only ask this because a reliable source told me so. However, I am very skeptical because I can’t believe any government agency has the authority, let alone the technology.

–Inferno, via the Straight Dope Message Board

The technology is the authority, sport. But you’re right to be skeptical. The U.S., the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are said to operate a vast computerized eavesdropping apparatus known as Echelon that automatically scans all electronic communications (telephone, E-mail, fax–you name it) looking for certain keywords–say, bin Laden. Suspect messages are routed to a human analyst for investigation, and next thing you know somebody’s getting a visit from the men in black or, worst case, looking at the business end of a laser-guided bomb.

Is it possible? Up to a point, sure. The U.S. and its allies have long intercepted and, if possible, decoded diplomatic cables. In the 1960s, when cable traffic began to be stored on magnetic media, it was a relatively simple matter to develop computer programs that could decrypt messages en masse and search for keywords, and something of the sort undoubtedly continues today. The question is scale: it’s one thing for government spooks to eavesdrop on some communications; it’s something else to listen to them all.

We know what we know about Echelon because of the efforts of several determined investigative journalists. The most thorough and persuasive account I’ve seen is James Bamford’s recent book Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency. The NSA, a shadowy organization with a budget larger than the CIA’s, oversees U.S. electronic eavesdropping, variously known as “sigint” or “comint” (signals/communications intelligence). According to Bamford, following World War II the U.S. and Great Britain agreed to pool their electronic intelligence-gathering efforts, an arrangement that became known as the UKUSA (pronounced yoo-KOO-sah) agreement. Australia, Canada, and New Zealand were invited in later. Using sophisticated technology at listening posts around the world, the NSA and other participating agencies monitor all manner of international electronic communications, including satellite and land-based radio transmissions, telephone calls, cable traffic, even computer emissions. A massive computer installation at NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, winnows the intercepts by looking for messages containing predetermined keywords. Apparently an intelligence “consumer” (a military planner, for example) can type in a set of keywords and have Echelon deliver a digest of all intercepts meeting the desired criteria, much as one might use an Internet search engine.

The targets of NSA monitoring are mostly foreign governments and other parties overseas (e.g., suspected terrorists or companies thought to be selling sensitive technology to the bad guys). Evidently the NSA doesn’t routinely monitor domestic communications, but no law forbids it to do so, which raises fears that Echelon will be used to spy on ordinary citizens. Europeans outside the UK are also worried that Echelon will be used to give businesses in UKUSA countries an unfair advantage. One oft-told story is that U.S. officials were able to swing a Saudi aircraft order from Airbus to Boeing by disclosing that the European company was handing out bribes.

The European Parliament recently issued an alarmed report about Echelon and sent a delegation to the U.S. to find out more, apparently in vain.

For all its sophistication, there are limits to what Echelon can do. As far as I can tell there’s no voice-activated system connected to local phone networks that records conversations based on keywords. Until recently, says Bamford, voice recognition technology just wasn’t sophisticated enough. New advances may make such automated monitoring possible, but the technology hasn’t been widely deployed–most monitoring of voice telephone calls is done the old-fashioned way, by people listening with earphones. In addition, because of the scale of modern communications, nonmilitary traffic is typically monitored at what might be thought of as pinch points–that is, places where a high volume of messages is funneled through a relatively small number of channels (communications satellites, microwave relay stations, etc). Wholesale eavesdropping on all communications, both foreign and domestic, is almost certainly beyond the NSA’s capabilities. Indeed, the explosive growth of communications over the past ten years (Internet, cell phones, fax machines), coupled with the introduction of seemingly unbreakable encryption, has made it even more difficult for the NSA to keep up. So we’ve got a curious situation: on the one hand, ordinary folks worry that Big Brother is watching, while on the other, the NSA and its fellow agencies fret that, increasingly, they can’t.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.