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(This interview is the original version of that one published in Tuttoscienze of LA STAMPA, 15 February 2006)

Engineers, physicists, computer scientists, linguists and a huge number of mathematicians – it's the largest employer of their kind in the world. The National Security Agency (NSA) – once again in the newspapers for having illegally spied on American citizens – is one of the most secret institutions ever created. If we do know anything about it at all, it is thanks to people like Steve Wright. A researcher at Leeds Metropolitan University (UK), Wright is the expert who authored the first STOA Report on Echelon, an NSA creation. We asked him to tell us what he knows.

Doctor Wright, what is NSA?

It is the U.S. President’s brain, an American intelligence agency almost exclusively interested in so-called “comint”, or communications intelligence, rather than “humint”, or intelligence gathered on the field by agents. In a nutshell, the NSA doesn’t use romantic 007 agents like James Bond, but rather satellites, very powerful computers and cutting-edge technology to spy on huge amounts of communication: phonecalls, emails, faxes. Just to give you an estimate, in 1992 NSA was able to intercept something like 2 million phone calls per hour.

Let’s speak about the technology you mentioned.

The bulk of their surveillance technology is in space, things like spy satellites of the “Vortex” system. And the mobile phone revolution made things worse. There is technology like “System X” which allow you to turn a mobile into a microphone: if you sleep with your mobile phone in your room and have intimate conversations about politics, religion or your private life, your mobile phone can record those conversations and the NSA can listen to them. Or, if after this interview you go back to Rome, thanks to your mobile the NSA can know all your movements and data of those movements could be recorded and kept for years. I think that people aren’t aware of this: its massive capacity. And we’re not speaking about high-tech James Bond devilry being used against spies or top level diplomats, we’re speaking about technology that the NSA can use against all private citizens.

When did you begin to work on this?

In the ‘70s. I took some pictures of aerials near my university. Officially they were aerials for communication between the U.S and U.K, but oddly enough they weren’t oriented in the right direction to fit that official explanation, so I began to make some maps to try to understand. I couldn’t have known at the time, but those aerials were part of the Echelon system.

Did the “men in black” arrive?

Some agents arrived to take me out of my home, I was arrested and the university was raided. They arrested Duncan Campbell as well, the great British investigative journalist who first wrote about Echelon. Since then, I stopped working on it, until ’96 when the European Parliament asked me to write the STOA Report. In any case, in their attempt to stop our research and to frighten us, I believe the NSA made the public aware of the problem.

It must be said, however, that the NSA is not the only agency which uses disquieting technology for political control....

Of course. Just to give you an example, these days there’s a lot of debate on a type of technology which the U.S. Department of Defence has spoken about wanting to develop. The idea is to make a remote lie detector which could be used without the targeted subject being aware of it and of course without his/her consent for being tested. They suggest a sort of laser beam to target a subject so that it can measure his/her pulse and respiration rate to detect any values outside the norm which normally can indicate someone telling a lie. If they make it, it will be a very disquieting piece of technology. Let’s imagine your Berlusconi is questioned about his integrity: the laser beam tests his replies without his being aware, the replies are put on the web in real time. By looking at the Internet, everybody can say: look, now Berlusconi is lying, now he’s telling the truth, now he’s lying...

Getting back to the NSA, you and your report got a lot of criticism as, according to your critics, it didn’t give any evidence of the fact that Echelon actually exists...

Well, in the beginning the CIA dismissed my report as nonsense as well: we don’t spy on our allies, they said. But then they admitted: we spied on them for commercial purposes, as some European countries are so corrupt and American companies cannot have their contracts compromised because of European corruption. That’s mad arrogance!

Anyway, now no one disputes the existence of a global network of surveillance like Echelon. In your opinion, is Echelon outdated?

I think so. Echelon was a way to describe some of the most complicated technology invented by humankind and probably there’s a totally different system now, probably a hundred different subsystems, with the Italian branch having its own Italian name. Progress is so fast that we’re moving toward a fusion of surveillance technology and weapons. As an example, I can mention the killing of the Chechen leader General Dudayev.

Isn’t it still a mystery?

The Russians were not able to get rid of him, as he was hiding away in inaccessible places and changing hiding places, but the NSA found the solution. The NSA intercepted Dudayev’s mobile phone and at that point his game was over. Dudayev was killed by a missile synchronised with his mobile phone signal.

And what about Bin Laden and Al Qaeda?

They have returned back to primitive communications: messengers and meetings at the top of mountains, as all other forms of communication can be intercepted. 9/11 was possible because the NSA failed, but it was not punished, it was rewarded with a huge budget. So the true question is: why is the American government investing a crazy amount of money on a system which the U.S.'s main enemy has demonstrated to be able to bypass? Is the war on terror a smokescreen? A way to fully develop the system to use it in who knows what ways?