The gathering of communications intelligence has shadowed the development of extensive high capacity new civil telecommunications systems, and has in consequence become a large-scale industrial activity employing many skilled workers and utilising exceptionally high degrees of automation.
The multi-step process by means of which communications intelligence is sought, collected, processed and passed on is similar for all countries, and is often described as the "intelligence cycle". The steps of the intelligence cycle correspond to distinct organisational and technical features of Comint production. Thus, for example, the administration of the US National Security Agency's (NSA) largest field station in the world, at Menwith Hill in England and responsible for operating over 250 classified projects, is divided into three directorates: OP, Operations and Plans; CP, Collection Processing; and EP, Exploitation and Production.
It should be noted that technically, legally and organisationally, law enforcement requirements for communications interception differ fundamentally from communications intelligence. Law enforcement agencies (LEAs) will normally wish to intercept a specific line or group of lines, and must normally justify their requests to a judicial or administrative authority before proceeding. In contract, Comint agencies conduct broad international communications "trawling" activities, and operate under general warrants. Such operations do not require or even suppose that the parties they intercept are criminals. Such distinctions are vital to civil liberty, but risk being eroded it the boundaries between law enforcement and communications intelligence interception becomes blurred in future.
The technical and legal processes involved in providing interception for law enforcement purpose differ fundamentally from those used in communications intelligence. Partly because of the lack of public awareness of Comint activities, this distinction is often glossed over, particularly by states that invest heavily in Comint. Any failure to distinguish between legitimate law enforcement interception requirements and interception for clandestine intelligence purposes raises grave issues for civil liberties. A clear boundary between law enforcement and "national security" interception activity is essential to the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
In the United Kingdom, GCHQ is specifically required by law (and as and when 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 tasked and analysed by GCHQ's K Division. 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.