Despite current debate in Washington surrounding the FBI's use of a new e-mail monitoring system dubbed Carnivore, security experts claim technology with the same capabilities has been operating in Australia for more than five years.
The US Congress is currently debating Fourth Amendment rights as a result of Carnivore, which basically intercepts communications on an ISP network.
The FBI has refused to release the source code for the controversial surveillance system despite mounting pressure from privacy advocates wanting to review the program.
According to Internet security consultant Counterpane a similar surveillance system has already been in operation in Australian security circles for many years.
Established by the National Security Agency (NSA) the automated global interception system is operated by the intelligence agencies of the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, Counterpane said.
Echelon is the code word for the system which is capable of intercepting and processing all forms of communication throughout the globe including phone calls, e-mail messages, Internet downloads and satellite transmissions.
According to Counterpane's newsletter Crypto-gram, the US House of Representatives last year requested documents from NSA relating to intelligence systems such as Echelon but NSA refused.
The newsletter referred to reports that Echelon intercepts as many as three billion communications daily gathering transmissions indiscriminately. The information is then sorted through artificial intelligence programs.
"Some sources have claimed that Echelon sifts through 90 per cent of the Internet's traffic," the newsletter said.
Papers written by NSA employees about the system, which has been patented, are available at http://trec.nist.gov/pubs/trec6/pa-pers/nsa-rev.ps.gz and patent information is available at http://www.patents.ibm.com/details?&pn=US05937422.
Industry sources in Australia who spoke to Computerworld said they were certainly aware of the existence of Echelon but that it has never beenformally confirmed by the federal government.
A spokesman for the Defence Signals Directorate in Canberra refused to comment.
One senior executive of a global security company in Australia described Echelon as an "all seeing, all powerful" computer network that intercepts all communications from mobiles to e-mails. He pointed out that ISPs would not be willing to disclose they cooperate in any e-mail surveillance for fear of losing customers but "they're buying bandwith from Telstra or Optus anyway" so options are limited.
"This is why Carnivore is no big surprise, it is perfectly feasible because the technology already exists and is available today," the source said.
Executive director of Electronic Frontiers Australia, Irene Graham has serious reservations about Echelon because information about the system has been so limited but believes it is very different to Carnivore.
"Carnivore is a more narrowly tailored system which has the ability to spy on individuals without court authority; it is more specific than Echelon and more dangerous."While privacy issues surrounding Carnivore heat up Washington, debate will continue to be restricted by the amount of information actually made available by governments here and overseas.