It was then, for example, that the big American telegraph companies -- Western Union, RCA and ITT -- agreed to provide the federal government with copies of all cables sent to or from the United States every day -- even though they knew it was illegal. "When the carriers computerized their operations in the 1960s, Operation Shamrock gained the ability to conduct keyword searches through each day's traffic. At that point, the NSA increasingly began to scan the nation's telegraphs against long lists of surveillance targets provided to the NSA by other security agencies -- including American anti-war and civil rights protesters, and even such groups as the Quakers" The program, codenamed "Operation Shamrock," only came to an end after it was incidentally revealed during investigations into various intelligence scandals in the 1970s.
Given this historical origin, it is hardly surprising that the most significant organisation using COMINT is undoubtedly that association of English-speaking nations led by the USA. (The United States being the First Party under the 1947 UKUSA agreement, with the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, the Second Parties, supplying information. Actually, the UKUSA agreement was not acknowledged publicly until March 1999, when the Australian government confirmed that its Sigint organisation, Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) "does co-operate with counterpart signals intelligence organisations overseas under the UKUSA relationship".) Again, quoting the STOA report, these days though, the system is directed largely towards non-military targets. It operates by intercepting very large quantities of information and then siphoning out what is valuable, using artificial intelligence aids.
The National Security Agency (NSA) is the body which is responsible for counter-espionage and for protecting government and military communications and is also active in research and development. It covers the entire spectrum of military and civil information technologies.
"NSA systematically intercepts international communications, both voice and cable".
He also admitted that "messages to and from American citizens have been picked up in the course of gathering foreign intelligence". US legislators considered that such operations might have been unconstitutional. During 1976, a Department of Justice team investigated possible criminal offences by NSA. Part of their report was released in 1980. It described how intelligence on US citizens:
Fifteen years ago, it was known that the United States could if it chose direct space collection systems to intercept mobile communications signals and microwave city- to-city traffic anywhere on the planet.
The key component of the mass monitoring of civilian communications are local "Dictionary" computers, which store an extensive database on specified targets, including names, topics of interest, addresses, telephone numbers and other key data fields. This is exactly the way that Google manages to monitor the vast amount of text on the world wide web, and indeed the original communications intelligence system, Project P-415/ECHELON, made heavy use of NSA and GCHQ's global Internet-like communication network to enable remote intelligence customers to task computers at each collection site, and receive the results automatically. And the big tech companies have more than coincidental similarities with the US security apparatus.
But back to the United Kingdom. Here, GCHQ is tasked by the British government to intercept foreign communications "in the interests of the economic well-being of the United Kingdom ...in relation to the actions or intentions of persons outside the British Islands". Commercial interception is analysed by GCHQ's K Division while commercial and economic targets can be specified by the government's Overseas Economic Intelligence Committee, the Economic Staff of the Joint Intelligence Committee, the Treasury, or the Bank of England. According to a former senior JIC official, (quoted anonymously by the STOA report authors) the Comint take routinely includes "company plans, telexes, faxes, and transcribed phone calls".
So the spy story is scarcely news. But this time, let's hope it won't be swept under the carpet.