There was a lot of buzz a decade or so ago about Echelon, an international electronic surveillance network said to link the United States, Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand. A flurry of stories covered the connections among the five countries, speculation about the network's capabilities, and rumors about Echelon's targets in a post-Cold War world. The European Parliament even produced a report (PDF) discussing the the potential risks the spy system posed to the European Union. Then, as with all such things, public attention shifted elsewhere and most people lost interest in an old-hat international surveillance system. Now, Echelon is re-entering the headlines, and we are likely to learn more about the network's capabilities than conspiracy fans ever dreamed possible, all because of the copyright case against the defunct online storage company, Megaupload.
In the increasingly bizarre case unfolding in Hobbit-land, we learned months ago that the Government Communications Security Bureau, New Zealand's equivalent of the National Security Agency, illegally spied on eccentric former Megaupload chief, Kim Dotcom. The New Zealand government did so at the behest of its American friends, and apparently shared real-time intelligence with U.S. officials. Befuddled judges in New Zealand, seeking to discover just how far down the rabbit hole government officials went in their efforts for an intellectual property case, now want to know the whole story. From the New Zealand Herald:
The High Court at Auckland ordered the police to produce details either proving or discounting the existence of a live video feed of the raid after contradictory evidence from a senior police officer.
The case is now aimed at the heart of New Zealand's intelligence arrangements with the United States and the other Echelon partners - Australia, Canada and Britain.
The secret group, also known as Five Eyes, collects and analyses data from electronic networks around the world for the benefit of exchange between member countries.
The order for the Government Communications Security Bureau (GSCB) to reveal top-secret details came along with an order the spy agency would now sit alongside the police as a defendant as the court continued to probe the unlawful search warrant used in the raid on Dotcom's north Auckland mansion.
At the time of the European Parliament report on Echelon, EU officials were concerned that the system was being used by its English-speaking sponsors for commercial purposes after the fall of the Communist bloc. We're in a brave new world, of course, and providers of all sorts of goods and services have to be flexible in seeking new markets. But the pursuit of copyright claims by Echelon would seem to reduce the high-tech snooping alliance to the level of a private investigator specializing in matrimonial bed-hopping and free-pouring by bartenders.
Given how long the Echelon partners kept their Cold War-era arrangement and its capabilities secret, it would be a wonderful postscript to see the whole damned thing exposed by a petty copyright case mishandled by old-school spooks who still think everything in the world operates like a prisoner exchange in 1960s Berlin.