Echelon, a vast electronic spy network on a planetary scale organized by the United States and its allies, inevitably compared to "Big Brother", arouses not only fantasies by its very secret character, but also many controversies.
The difficulty of historicizing the subject
Presented as a doctor of information sciences and a specialist in economic intelligence, C. Delesse is not a historian in the strict sense of the term. Without wanting to be sectarian, studying Echelon and electronic intelligence on the historical level is a challenge: the Echelon network is only known through testimonies of former intelligence officers or revelations made by politicians, or even through investigations carried out by investigative journalists. The author's approach is not in this sense, purely historian with regard to the method used, due to the inaccessibility of sources.
However, it should be noted that this work, published by Ouest France, is anchored in the “Espionage” collection produced with the collaboration of CF2R (French Center for Research on Intelligence), in which various serious popularization works on the issues have been published. intelligence.
The origins of the Echelon network
The Echelon network has its roots in World War II, a conflict during which the United States and the United Kingdom set up an electronic surveillance system. The agreement between the two countries, dubbed UKUSA, is rapidly expanding to Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The electronic intelligence services of each of these countries will thus collaborate to set up various interception stations crisscrossing the entire globe. Turned first against the Communist adversary, this network is closely dominated by the top secret National Security Agency (NSA), an agency created in 1952 specializing in electronic intelligence, and is placed at the service of American interests. Indeed, the directions of the collection of SIGINT (or "intelligence of electronic origin") are given by the United States, through officers placed alongside the allied services.
After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, new issues will make it possible to legitimize the sustainability of this network: the fight against terrorism, the need to ensure the predominance of the United States in terms of information, as well as the question litigation of economic intelligence. At the same time, revelations have multiplied about the functioning and organization of the Echelon network.
The challenge of the Echelon network and American electronic intelligence
The NSA and the Echelon network therefore seem capable of seeing everything, knowing everything, from interceptions of communications, processed and then analyzed by both ultra-powerful computers and human analysts. Especially since the NSA has been repeatedly accused of failing to respect individual freedoms, which are sacrosanct in the United States, drawing criticism from NGOs and organizations defending freedoms. Critics also come from abroad, particularly from Europeans, concerned about the use of the Echelon network for economic purposes: it is said to have been used to enable American companies to win tenders. While the European Parliament for a while opened an investigation in the early 2000s, it has had no real result.
These criticisms of US electronic intelligence reflect the breadth of its infrastructure and its capabilities for interception, processing and analysis. Cyber defense, electronic intelligence and computer security issues are becoming crucial as cyberspace becomes central and an information war is looming.
In the end, this book has some limitations. There is, as we have pointed out, the problem of the sources used by the author, which do not offer sufficient historical reliability. Another pitfall, much of the work appears not only technical but also "compilatory" when the author lists the many listening stations that make up the Echelon network. Beyond these limits, this book remains an interesting tool for reflection around the question of the role, control and dissemination of information in our contemporary societies.
Echelon and American electronic intelligence, by Claude Delesse. Ouest-France Editions, 2012.