ECHELON is a top secret NSA (National Security Agency) surveillance program that may have roots going back to the 1960s when spy agencies were monitoring Soviet Union communications as part of the Cold War. Due to the highly classified nature of this program, very little is known about the project other than bits and pieces cobbled together through leaked government reports and rumors.
ECHELON is part of a communication monitoring system put together in cooperation with Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. ECHELON may be the code name for the part of the system run by the NSA. It is believed by some to refer to the collection of satellite communications through monitoring stations scattered around the world. In its entirety, ECHELON may be capable of intercepting not only satellite communications, but also fiber optic telephone conversations, fax, microwave links, radio, e-mail and other Internet communications.
The ECHELON program is so highly classified that not even Congressional hearings have been able to uncover specific details regarding their operations.
ECHELON appears to be capable of intercepting and recording literally billions of communications per day, which it then filters to extract targeted data. The international controversy regarding ECHELON focuses not only on privacy issues related to the potential monitoring of citizens of other countries, but also due to numerous accusations that at least part of ECHELON is focused on industrial espionage and theft of manufacturing information from other countries in order to give the US an advantage. While there doesn’t appear to be any actual proof to back up these accusations, there is a widespread distrust of the motives behind the program due to its high level of secrecy. The project is so classified that the governments involved refuse to acknowledge that it even exists.