BOSTON -- The possibility that innocent people may become Echelon targets or that the project's spying may exceed legal boundaries bothers privacy activists, PC World reported. The activists note that when an intelligence project operates in total secrecy, the public has no way of knowing whether or not the program is operating within the law.
Echelon is a vast, international surveillance system that monitors electronic communication.
According to PC World, Echelon is so hush-hush that the National Security Agency (NSA) will not even acknowledge the program's existence, much less discuss its targeting criteria or its civil liberties safeguards.
Only two fragmentary documents have been released under the federal Freedom of Information Act; they consist of just seven highly censored pages. Reports by Scientific and Technical Options Assessment (STOA) are more detailed but still leave many questions unanswered.
""Any time you have a law enforcement or intelligence agency that claims it is policing itself, I have a real problem with it," said Wayne Madsen, a specialist on U.S. intelligence operations for the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "I would feel a lot more comfortable if there was an outside ombudsman who was independent who could go in and take a look," he added.
Partly because of STOA's reports, the ACLU petitioned the House Committee on Government Reform last year and asked for an investigation of Project Echelon. The ACLU wants to ensure that Echelon is operating in accordance with federal law and the U.S. Constitution.
"Echelon is a black box, and nobody outside the intelligence community knows what is inside it," says ACLU associate director Barry Steinhardt.
For those concerned about potential abuses, the issue is simple: "What it comes down to is, somebody is reading your mail," says Pike, who serves as director of the Federation of American Scientists' Intelligence Project.
"If it is an international transaction, the National Security Agency is monitoring it," Pike adds. "The target is wide open: essentially, it consists of anything that would be of interest to the U.S. government--and the rest of the English-speaking world."
And no one is watching to see what they do with the information.
The ACLU's website www.echelonwatch.org provides more information about Echelon and gives visitors a chance to express their views about this kind of surveillance.