NSA’s ECHELON: The Predecessor of PRISM



2013 is the worst year for the NSA and its sister agencies around the world as their global eavesdropping saga surfaced when one of their own contractor Edward Snowden, exposed the key top secret documents. The information leaked by Snowden included several top secret details about the massive surveillance programs under the codenames PRISM, XKeyscore, Tempora, Muscular, Project6, Storeroom and Lustre. As the media reacted strong, covering and revealing key information from the leaked documents, only a very few tried to cover the roots of these surveillance programs to the Cold War era program called ECHELON, and the site where it nourished -Menwith Hill.


ECHELON is the first and foremost massive surveillance program that primarily involved the NSA, to spy on the Soviet Union’s communications with its allies. Margaret Newsham, a Lockheed employee who revealed the existence of the ECHELON program, also confirmed that the program was initially the idea of the NSA and the primary dwellers at the Menwith Hill were mostly US employees who work for the NSA. The UKUSA agreement aided the ECHELON program with the access of signal intelligence among the five eyes, United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Besides these political partners, the documents by Snowden tell that the NSA is also aided by commercial partners like Microsoft, Google, Apple, Facebook, Verizon, AT&T, Vodafone and other regional and third party companies around the world.

Microsoft and the FBI

Microsoft has been accused more than enough for developing spyware and granting government agencies, the access to their Outlook data by bypassing their encryptions. There are notable mentions that Microsoft partnered with FBI to use the intercepted data to analyze the problems with their alias emails. Though Microsoft has been blamed a little regarding ECHELON, the company’s involvement in the PRISM program is more quantifiable when Skype interceptions and the potential Windows 8 backdoor exploit with Trusted Computing are taken into account. Besides Microsoft, other software companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple have nothing to disclose than a flattering statement about their respect to their customer’s privacy.

Why ECHELON and PRISM Sound Scary?

The most profound defending statement for this surveillance is that, the scrutiny of global communication is the key for the national defense and the people should accept it for the betterment of the nation’s safety. But, in the cases of ECHELON and PRISM, the NSA and CIA had crossed lines when they exploited the system for commercial purposes and spied on a list of political and industrial offices for industrial gain. PRISM turned scary when the leaked documents revealed that day to day communications of normal people are also intercepted with a deliberate privacy breach.

NSA’s Industrial Espionage

ECHELON is exploited many times by the NSA, as it used the signal intelligence to intercept industrial data. The industrial and commercial espionage raised controversies in the past, when CIA spied on Nissan and Toyota to boost the America’s automobile industry. Industrial espionage also gained two contracts for the US companies like McDonnell Douglas and Raytheon, where the NSA acted as a whistleblower after intercepting the communications of Airbus and Thomson-Alcatel and revealing their briberies to attain the contracts.

A quick analysis of the surveillance scheme of the PRISM program could also list out the primary sources of the surveillance is from computer network exploitation performed by teams of elite hackers by the NSA. An anonymous disclosure explains a lot about these exploits as the infected systems worldwide flooded the NSA with about 2000TB of data per hour.


Despite the European government’s revelation of the ECHELON program, the US government is still tightlipped about the existence of ECHELON, or whatever the codename is.

The Surveillance Headquarters

Menwith Hill in Britain, the birthplace of ECHELON and the largest signal intelligence gathering site in the world established by the United States and the United Kingdom, is undergoing a major expansion under the codename ‘Project Phoenix’ since 2012 and is expected to be completed by 2015. The site is believed to possess the most sophisticated supercomputers since its establishment. While this information is available on the RAF website, the dirty little secrets are interred and closed under a tiny circle where only a few people know what really is happening at this site.

NSA’s New Quantum Computer

It is still transparent that the global surveillance had its origins from the Cold War period or even back from the World War II era and no wonder if ECHELON could have evolved into PRISM and the rest of the programs. NSA has just got its quantum computer (!) D-Wave, and fueled the privacy issue to a larger scale as they could be now capable of decrypting all the public-keys.

Similar Swipe:
An Overview on NSA’s TAO – A Shocking Revelation

This post was first published on January 5, 2014.


Karthikeyan KC

Aeronautical engineer, dev, science fiction author, gamer, and an explorer. I am the creator of Geekswipe. I love writing about physics and astronomy. I am now creating Swyde.


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