Signals intelligence (SIGINT) is intelligence-gathering by interception of signals, whether communications between people (communications intelligence—abbreviated to COMINT) or from electronic signals not directly used in communication (electronic intelligence—abbreviated to ELINT). Signals intelligence is a subset of intelligence collection management. As classified and sensitive information is usually encrypted, signals intelligence in turn involves the use of cryptanalysis to decipher the messages. Traffic analysis—the study of who is signaling whom and in what quantity—is also used to integrate information again.
Main article: Signals intelligence in modern history
Electronic interceptions appeared as early as 1900, during the Boer War of 1899–1902. The British Royal Navy had installed wireless sets produced by Marconi on board their ships in the late 1890s, and the British Army used some limited wireless signalling. The Boers captured some wireless sets and used them to make vital transmissions. Since the British were the only people transmitting at the time, no special interpretation of the signals that were intercepted by the British was necessary.
The birth of signals intelligence in a modern sense dates from the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905. As the Russian fleet prepared for conflict with Japan in 1904, the British ship HMS Diana stationed in the Suez Canal intercepted Russian naval wireless signals being sent out for the mobilization of the fleet, for the first time in history.
Over the course of the First World War, the new method of signals intelligence reached maturity. Failure to properly protect its communications fatally compromised the Russian Army in its advance early in World War I and led to their disastrous defeat by the Germans under Ludendorff and Hindenburg at the Battle of Tannenberg. In 1918, French intercept personnel captured a message written in the new ADFGVX cipher, which was cryptanalyzed by Georges Painvin. This gave the Allies advance warning of the German 1918 Spring Offensive.
The British in particular built up great expertise in the newly emerging field of signals intelligence and codebreaking (synonymous with cryptanalysis). On the declaration of war, Britain cut all German undersea cables. This forced the Germans to use either a telegraph line that connected through the British network and could be tapped, or through radio which the British could then intercept. Rear Admiral Henry Oliver appointed Sir Alfred Ewing to establish an interception and decryption service at the Admiralty; Room 40. An interception service known as 'Y' service, together with the post office and Marconi stations, grew rapidly to the point where the British could intercept almost all official German messages.
The German fleet was in the habit each day of wirelessing the exact position of each ship and giving regular position reports when at sea. It was possible to build up a precise picture of the normal operation of the High Seas Fleet, to infer from the routes they chose where defensive minefields had been placed and where it was safe for ships to operate. Whenever a change to the normal pattern was seen, it immediately signalled that some operation was about to take place and a warning could be given. Detailed information about submarine movements was also available.
The use of radio-receiving equipment to pinpoint the location of the transmitter was also developed during the war. Captain H.J. Round, working for Marconi, began carrying out experiments with direction-finding radio equipment for the army in France in 1915. By May 1915, the Admiralty was able to track German submarines crossing the North Sea. Some of these stations also acted as 'Y' stations to collect German messages, but a new section was created within Room 40 to plot the positions of ships from the directional reports.
Room 40 played an important role in several naval engagements during the war, notably in detecting major German sorties into the North Sea. The battle of Dogger Bank was won in no small part due to the intercepts that allowed the Navy to position its ships in the right place. It played a vital role in subsequent naval clashes, including at the Battle of Jutland as the British fleet was sent out to intercept them. The direction-finding capability allowed for the tracking and location of German ships, submarines, and Zeppelins. The system was so successful that by the end of the war, over 80 million words, comprising the totality of German wireless transmission over the course of the war, had been intercepted by the operators of the Y-stations and decrypted. However, its most astonishing success was in decrypting the Zimmermann Telegram, a telegram from the German Foreign Office sent via Washington to its ambassador Heinrich von Eckardt in Mexico.
With the importance of interception and decryption firmly established by the wartime experience, countries established permanent agencies dedicated to this task in the interwar period. In 1919, the British Cabinet's Secret Service Committee, chaired by Lord Curzon, recommended that a peace-time codebreaking agency should be created. The Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) was the first peace-time codebreaking agency, with a public function "to advise as to the security of codes and cyphers used by all Government departments and to assist in their provision", but also with a secret directive to "study the methods of cypher communications used by foreign powers". GC&CS officially formed on 1 November 1919, and produced its first decrypt on 19 October. By 1940, GC&CS was working on the diplomatic codes and ciphers of 26 countries, tackling over 150 diplomatic cryptosystems.
The US Cipher Bureau was established in 1919 and achieved some success at the Washington Naval Conference in 1921, through cryptanalysis by Herbert Yardley. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson closed the US Cipher Bureau in 1929 with the words "Gentlemen do not read each other's mail."
The use of SIGINT had even greater implications during World War II. The combined effort of intercepts and cryptanalysis for the whole of the British forces in World War II came under the code name "Ultra", managed from Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park. Properly used, the German Enigma and Lorenz ciphers should have been virtually unbreakable, but flaws in German cryptographic procedures, and poor discipline among the personnel carrying them out, created vulnerabilities which made Bletchley's attacks feasible.
Bletchley's work was essential to defeating the U-boats in the Battle of the Atlantic, and to the British naval victories in the Battle of Cape Matapan and the Battle of North Cape. In 1941, Ultra exerted a powerful effect on the North African desert campaign against German forces under General Erwin Rommel. General Sir Claude Auchinleck wrote that were it not for Ultra, "Rommel would have certainly got through to Cairo". Ultra decrypts featured prominently in the story of Operation SALAM, László Almásy's mission across the desert behind Allied lines in 1942. Prior to the Normandy landings on D-Day in June 1944, the Allies knew the locations of all but two of Germany's fifty-eight Western Front divisions.
Winston Churchill was reported to have told King George VI: "It is thanks to the secret weapon of General Menzies, put into use on all the fronts, that we won the war!" Supreme Allied Commander, Dwight D. Eisenhower, at the end of the war, described Ultra as having been "decisive" to Allied victory. Official historian of British Intelligence in World War II Sir Harry Hinsley argued that Ultra shortened the war "by not less than two years and probably by four years"; and that, in the absence of Ultra, it is uncertain how the war would have ended.
The United States Department of Defense has defined the term "signals intelligence" as:
Being a broad field, SIGINT has many sub-disciplines. The two main ones are communications intelligence (COMINT) and electronic intelligence (ELINT).
"COMINT" redirects here. For the The Americans episode, see COMINT (The Americans).
COMINT (communications intelligence) is a sub-category of signals intelligence that engages in dealing with messages or voice information derived from the interception of foreign communications. COMINT is commonly referred to as SIGINT, which can cause confusion when talking about the broader intelligence disciplines. The US Joint Chiefs of Staff defines it as "Technical information and intelligence derived from foreign communications by other than the intended recipients".
COMINT, which is defined to be communications among people, will reveal some or all of the following:
A basic COMINT technique is to listen for voice communications, usually over radio but possibly "leaking" from telephones or from wiretaps. If the voice communications are encrypted, traffic analysis may still give information.
In the Second World War, for security the United States used Native American volunteer communicators known as code talkers, who used languages such as Navajo, Comanche and Choctaw, which would be understood by few people, even in the U.S. Even within these uncommon languages, the code talkers used specialized codes, so a "butterfly" might be a specific Japanese aircraft. British forces made limited use of Welsh speakers for the same reason.
While modern electronic encryption does away with the need for armies to use obscure languages, it is likely that some groups might use rare dialects that few outside their ethnic group would understand.
Morse code interception was once very important, but Morse code telegraphy is now obsolete in the western world, although possibly used by special operations forces. Such forces, however, now have portable cryptographic equipment.
Specialists scan radio frequencies for character sequences (e.g., electronic mail) and fax.
A given digital communications link can carry thousands or millions of voice communications, especially in developed countries. Without addressing the legality of such actions, the problem of identifying which channel contains which conversation becomes much simpler when the first thing intercepted is the signaling channel that carries information to set up telephone calls. In civilian and many military use, this channel will carry messages in Signaling System 7 protocols.
Retrospective analysis of telephone calls can be made from Call detail record (CDR) used for billing the calls.
More a part of communications security than true intelligence collection, SIGINT units still may have the responsibility of monitoring one's own communications or other electronic emissions, to avoid providing intelligence to the enemy. For example, a security monitor may hear an individual transmitting inappropriate information over an unencrypted radio network, or simply one that is not authorized for the type of information being given. If immediately calling attention to the violation would not create an even greater security risk, the monitor will call out one of the BEADWINDOW codes used by Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the United States, and other nations working under their procedures. Standard BEADWINDOW codes (e.g., "BEADWINDOW 2") include:
In WWII, for example, the Japanese Navy, by poor practice, identified a key person's movement over a low-security cryptosystem. This made possible Operation Vengeance, the interception and death of the Combined Fleet commander, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto.
Electronic signals intelligence (ELINT) refers to intelligence-gathering by use of electronic sensors. Its primary focus lies on non-communications signals intelligence. The Joint Chiefs of Staff define it as "Technical and geolocation intelligence derived from foreign noncommunications electromagnetic radiations emanating from sources other than nuclear detonations or radioactive sources."
Signal identification is performed by analyzing the collected parameters of a specific signal, and either matching it to known criteria, or recording it as a possible new emitter. ELINT data are usually highly classified, and are protected as such.
The data gathered are typically pertinent to the electronics of an opponent's defense network, especially the electronic parts such as radars, surface-to-air missile systems, aircraft, etc. ELINT can be used to detect ships and aircraft by their radar and other electromagnetic radiation; commanders have to make choices between not using radar (EMCON), intermittently using it, or using it and expecting to avoid defenses. ELINT can be collected from ground stations near the opponent's territory, ships off their coast, aircraft near or in their airspace, or by satellite.
Combining other sources of information and ELINT allows traffic analysis to be performed on electronic emissions which contain human encoded messages. The method of analysis differs from SIGINT in that any human encoded message which is in the electronic transmission is not analyzed during ELINT. What is of interest is the type of electronic transmission and its location. For example, during the Battle of the Atlantic in World War II, Ultra COMINT was not always available because Bletchley Park was not always able to read the U-boat Enigma traffic. But high-frequency direction finding ("huff-duff") was still able to detect U-boats by analysis of radio transmissions and the positions through triangulation from the direction located by two or more huff-duff systems. The Admiralty was able to use this information to plot courses which took convoys away from high concentrations of U-boats.
Other ELINT disciplines include intercepting and analyzing enemy weapons control signals, or the identification, friend or foe responses from transponders in aircraft used to distinguish enemy craft from friendly ones.
A very common area of ELINT is intercepting radars and learning their locations and operating procedures. Attacking forces may be able to avoid the coverage of certain radars, or, knowing their characteristics, electronic warfare units may jam radars or send them deceptive signals. Confusing a radar electronically is called a "soft kill", but military units will also send specialized missiles at radars, or bomb them, to get a "hard kill". Some modern air-to-air missiles also have radar homing guidance systems, particularly for use against large airborne radars.
Knowing where each surface-to-air missile and anti-aircraft artillery system is and its type means that air raids can be plotted to avoid the most heavily defended areas and to fly on a flight profile which will give the aircraft the best chance of evading ground fire and fighter patrols. It also allows for the jamming or spoofing of the enemy's defense network (see electronic warfare). Good electronic intelligence can be very important to stealth operations; stealth aircraft are not totally undetectable and need to know which areas to avoid. Similarly, conventional aircraft need to know where fixed or semi-mobile air defense systems are so that they can shut them down or fly around them.
Electronic support measures (ESM) or electronic surveillance measures are ELINT techniques using various electronic surveillance systems, but the term is used in the specific context of tactical warfare. ESM give the information needed for electronic attack (EA) such as jamming, or directional bearings (compass angle) to a target in signals intercept such as in the huff-duff radio direction finding (RDF) systems so critically important during the World War II Battle of the Atlantic. After WWII, the RDF, originally applied only in communications, was broadened into systems to also take in ELINT from radar bandwidths and lower frequency communications systems, giving birth to a family of NATO ESM systems, such as the shipboard US AN/WLR-1—AN/WLR-6 systems and comparable airborne units. EA is also called electronic counter-measures (ECM). ESM provides information needed for electronic counter-counter measures (ECCM), such as understanding a spoofing or jamming mode so one can change one's radar characteristics to avoid them.
Meaconing is the combined intelligence and electronic warfare of learning the characteristics of enemy navigation aids, such as radio beacons, and retransmitting them with incorrect information.
Main article: Foreign instrumentation signals intelligence
FISINT (Foreign instrumentation signals intelligence) is a sub-category of SIGINT, monitoring primarily non-human communication. Foreign instrumentation signals include (but not limited to) telemetry (TELINT), tracking systems, and video data links. TELINT is an important part of national means of technical verification for arms control.
Still at the research level are techniques that can only be described as counter-ELINT, which would be part of a SEAD campaign. It may be informative to compare and contrast counter-ELINT with ECCM.
Main article: Measurement and signature intelligence
Signals intelligence and measurement and signature intelligence (MASINT) are closely, and sometimes confusingly, related. The signals intelligence disciplines of communications and electronic intelligence focus on the information in those signals themselves, as with COMINT detecting the speech in a voice communication or ELINT measuring the frequency, pulse repetition rate, and other characteristics of a radar.
MASINT also works with collected signals, but is more of an analysis discipline. There are, however, unique MASINT sensors, typically working in different regions or domains of the electromagnetic spectrum, such as infrared or magnetic fields. While NSA and other agencies have MASINT groups, the Central MASINT Office is in the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).
Where COMINT and ELINT focus on the intentionally transmitted part of the signal, MASINT focuses on unintentionally transmitted information. For example, a given radar antenna will have sidelobes emanating from a direction other than that in which the main antenna is aimed. The RADINT (radar intelligence) discipline involves learning to recognize a radar both by its primary signal, captured by ELINT, and its sidelobes, perhaps captured by the main ELINT sensor, or, more likely, a sensor aimed at the sides of the radio antenna.
MASINT associated with COMINT might involve the detection of common background sounds expected with human voice communications. For example, if a given radio signal comes from a radio used in a tank, if the interceptor does not hear engine noise or higher voice frequency than the voice modulation usually uses, even though the voice conversation is meaningful, MASINT might suggest it is a deception, not coming from a real tank.
See HF/DF for a discussion of SIGINT-captured information with a MASINT flavor, such as determining the frequency to which a receiver is tuned, from detecting the frequency of the beat frequency oscillator of the superheterodyne receiver.
Since the invention of the radio, the international consensus has been that the radio-waves are no one's property, and thus the interception itself is not illegal. There can, however, be national laws on who is allowed to collect, store, and process radio traffic, and for what purposes. Monitoring traffic in cables (i.e. telephone and Internet) is far more controversial, since it most of the time requires physical access to the cable and thereby violating ownership and expected privacy.
National Security Agency/Central Security Service > Signals Intelligence > Overview
As early as 1900 in the Boer War, the Royal Navy in South Africa appears to have used wireless sets inherited from the Royal Engineers to signal from the neutral port of Lourenco Marques 'information relative to the enemy' albeit in violation of international law. [...] This first use of radio for intelligence purposes depended, of course, on the inability of others to intercept the signals, but in 1900, only the British in that part of the world had any wireless capability.