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Activists target U.S. surveillance system

"Jam Echelon Day" seeks to cripple Echelon, the controversial U.S.-led communications spy network.

A group of Internet activists hopes to bring attention to the controversial U.S.-led communications spy network Echelon with a "Jam Echelon Day." But privacy experts say the protest as planned will have a minimal effect on the sophisticated surveillance system.

Organizers of the cyberevent, set for Oct. 21, are encouraging the Internet community to send out as many e-mail messages as possible containing certain "trigger words" they believe the Echelon system is programmed to watch for. The theory is that if the bulk of monitored e-mails becomes too great, Echelon will be overworked with intercepting spurious input, and so its effectiveness will drop.

Though, the organizers concede, they are unlikely to jam the whole system, they believe it's still worth pressing ahead.

"While the goal of jamming Echelon is a lofty, and likely unattainable, one, is it not better to signal displeasure at being monitored than passively allow it to happen?" asked the coordinator of activist group Cipherwar's Web site, who prefers to be known by his nickname, Scully.

A list of 1,700 suspicious words have been listed on the Cipherwar site, for inclusion in e-mail, telephone or fax communications on Jam Echelon Day. The trigger words include hackers, encryption, espionage, secret service and Bletchley Park.

But Simon Davies, director of Privacy International, believes that sprinkling keywords within communications will not have an impact on the high-tech spy network.

"The Echelon system works on a very sophisticated system of word relationships, rather than strictly on keywords," said Davies. "Powerful artificial-intelligence software is used to judge the relationship between words, and analyze strings of words."

Davies advises protestors to send a whole series of original keyword transmissions through e-mail, rather than relying on someone else's template. "They will need to be imaginative and committed to take the original approach that could feasibly slow the system down, but the most important thing is to raise awareness about Echelon and the work of national security agencies."

The existence of Echelon was confirmed by the European Parliament in May. A lengthy investigation found sufficient evidence to suggest that the spy system--a U.S.-led venture that has support from the U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand--is used for global industrial espionage, among other things. According to the report, Echelon has been capable of intercepting telecommunications messages to and from a particular person, via satellite, since 1978.

Staff writer Wendy McAuliffe reported from London.