re: Satellites and Your Privacy

Philip Chien (
Sun, 18 Apr 1999 23:37:25 -0400 said:

>The National Security Agency (NSA) apparently has a program called the
>Echelon Global Surveillance System whereby they monitor all data bouncing
>off INTELSAT satellites for certain "key" words.  These transmissions
>include voice, fax, and e-mail transmissions.  When one or more of the key
>words are detected, the correspondence is transcribed and forwarded (where?)
>for further analysis.
>You can find out more at

Well just to set of the NSA keyword search - Umbra, Plutonium, bomb, Jihad,
Advanced Orion, Soupy Sales.

These capabilities have been rumored for years.  And of course there's no
way to prove that the NSA doesn't have these capabilites or that they
aren't monitoring individualls illegally.  (It's the Easter Bunny-Santa
Claus-UFO theory - you can't prove that they don't exist.  But that doesn't
mean that they do exist.)

email sounds at least plausible - just search every bit transmitted in
every possible form (wire, fiber optic, R-F).  fax and voice are a little
harder to believe - for fax it would require incredible optical character
recognition capabilities and voice would require incredible pattern
recognition.  Certainly it's plausible to believe that the government would
have capabilities far in excess of what's available to the public.

Monitoring just the Intelsats (and Panamsat, Orion, Intersputnik, and other
international birds) is just a fancy form of wire-taping and certainly
within the capabilities of any government or many large companies.  But
much of international traffic (including most Internet activities) are via
fiber-optic undersea cables.

As far as using satellite for monitoring are concerned (I knew I'd get on
topic eventually)  There are about 11 large military satellites believed to
be listening satellites.  (STS-33 plus every Titan IV launch which isn't a
DSP, Milstar, Keyhole, Lacrosse, SDS, or Cassini.  And assumes that the
NOSS-2 A objects are listening satellites).  That sets a maximum.

Certainly the NSA (or NRO or CIA if you wish) does operate listening
satellites, that was publicly acknowledged in 1995.  And those birds have
incredible capabilities.  Much of the Rhiolite was compromised in the 1970s
and many details have been leaked.  Obviously technology improves over
time, especially electronics.

But now we get in to extrapolations of what the NSA can do today which the
USAF, NRO, and NASA apparently can't.

The Titan IVB-Centaur can put 10,000 lbs. in to geostationary orbit.  So
that's a maximum on how large these satellites can be.  For some reason the
NSA uses the same launch vehicles used by the rest with the same (or a bit
less) reliability.  So far so good - no magic here.

The typical military satellite lasts about half as long as a typical
comsat.  About 7-9 years for DSP, a bit less for DSCS vs. 15+ year
lifetimes for typical comsats.  But let's assume that every one of those
eleven satellites is in operation, maybe a couple more if previous
satellites launched on Titan 34Ds and other launch vehicles are still

Now we start to enter the realm of fantasy and Tom Clancy.  Let's assume
that these military birds never fail and they've got ten times the
capabilities (power, bandwidth, computing power, etc.) of the best
state-of-the-art military and NASA satellites.  Why would only the NSA have
access to these capabilites when the same contractors are building
satellites for other government agencies which are inferior?  Presumably
because of the NSA's secrecy requirements.  But is that really reasonable?
How many contractor employees and others (cleared for Top Secret of course)
would have to know that they were building state-of-the-art satellites for
the NSA and less capable ones for everybody else?  And this has been kept
secret for this long by a government which couldn't even keep Watergate
under wraps?  (or Lewinskigate if you wish depending on your political

Even if these super ultra listening posts could exist do some
back-of-the-envelope calculations of just how many messages could be
monitored under those assumptions.   It will certainly be a very massive
amount of information.  But let's assume that the NSA has these incredible
super super computers which can process all of that information.  So
they've got not gigabytes, not terabytes, not whatever's next bytes, but
gobs and gobs and oodles (technical term for a really big number) of
information which has been collected and categorized.  Then somebody (with
the appropriate classification of course) has to ultimately look at the
computer's results.  Sipping water out of a fire hydrant would be simple in

On the other hand ....

Look at the email/Internet explosion and how many messages are transmitted
every day now in comparison with just five years ago.  I suspect it's
already orders of magnitude greater than any hypothetical system I've
described above.

If the NSA ever had the capability to monitor every electronic transmission
for keywords in the past, they certainly can't monitor every transmission

Of course targeted investigations trying to monitor the transmissions from
or two any particular party which is being investigated or monitoring
people at random is certainly well within their capabilities.  And
certainly there's little doubt that it does happen.  (for one thing what
else would those dozen satellites be doing?)

But, of course is still a violation of the U.S. constituion unless a
wiretap has been authorized by a judge.  And that is a serious concern.

Philip Chien, KC4YER
Earth News
world (in)famous writer, science fiction fan, ham radio operator,
all-around nice guy, etc.