No legal means exist to challenge mass surveillance, said NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, testifying to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
A former NSA contractor, Snowden was speaking to the PACE session in Strasbourg via a video link-up from Moscow.
Wanted in the US on treason charges, he sparked a huge international scandal last year when he leaked to the media classified evidence of American government spying programs.
“I would like to clarify that I have no intention of harming the US government or straining bilateral ties between any nations. My motivation is to improve the government, not to bring it down,” Snowden said.
The NSA gathered “explicit sexual material regarding religious conservatives whose political views it disfavored and considered radical for the purpose of exposing it to damage their reputations and discredit them within their communities,” Snowden told PACE.
“This is an unprecedented form of political interference that I don’t believe can be seen elsewhere in western governments,” he went on. “But no legal means currently exist to challenge such activities or to see penalties for such abuses,” he said.
Mass surveillance is also used by the NSA, as well as by its partners and adversaries, for the purposes of economic espionage, Snowden said.
“The NSA had unlawfully compromised the world’s major transaction facilities to include SWIFT and Visa. And in their reports they explicitly noted that such information provided “rich personal information” including data that “is not about our targets,” Snowden told the parliamentarians gathered in Strasbourg.
Testifying to the PACE parliamentary hearing, Snowden was asked if the NSA, Britain’s GCHQ or other spy services engage in sophisticated analysis of the data captured by surveillance programs such as PRISM. According to the whistleblower, such analysis does take place. Spy agencies also use algorithms of the kind widely used in commercial data-mining to seek out further people of interest.
He explained, in particular, how NSA analyzes the so-called “digital fingerprints.”The “fingerprint” technology is used to construct a unique signature for any individual or group’s communications, which are often comprised of “selectors, such as e-mail addresses, phone numbers or user names,” Snowden said. This allows state security agencies “to instantly identify the movements and activities of you, your computers or other devices, your personal internet accounts or even key words of other uncommon strings that indicate an individual, or group, out of all the communications they intercept in the world are associated with that particular communication.”
And that is just a small part of the NSA’s fingerprinting capability, the whistleblower said, adding that any kind of internet traffic caught by mass surveillance technologies can be analyzed and searched with little effort.
The technique allows security agencies to identify a person with a certain social or religious group, or by business interactions. In fact, “there are very few practical limitations to the kind of analysis that can be technically formed in this manner.”
Snowden also spoke about the NSA surveillance tool called XKeyscore, which gives spy agency a technical ability to track entire populations of individuals through unencrypted communications.
“It is a trivial task, for example, to generate lists of home addresses for people matching the targeted criteria… or even to analyze the nature and proximity of their social connections,” he said.
Snowden added, however, that there are no “nightmare scenarios” where the US government would, for instance, compile lists of gay people. But that still implicates human rights, Snowden said, underlining that it is necessary to develop international standards to protect people against such abuses.
Rights groups not exempt from NSA snooping
Snowden said that mass surveillance was a “global problem,” not just a problem for the US or for the European Union.
“We need to be clear with our language: these practices are abusive. This is clearly a disproportional use of an extraordinary invasive authority, an extraordinary invasive means of investigation taken against entire populations rather than the traditional investigators standard of using the least intrusive means or investigating specifically named targets or groups,” Snowden told PACE’s Legal Affairs Committee, adding that these violations of human rights must be addressed.
Giving evidence by video link to the committee in Strasbourg, Snowden said that the NSA deliberately snooped on international human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
“The NSA has, in fact, specifically targeted the communications of either leaders or staff members in a number of purely civil or purely human rights organizations…including domestically, within the borders of the US,” he said in live testimony, without referring specifically to the organizations by name.
The PACE Legal Affairs Committee gathered Tuesday to debate a report on improving user protection and security in cyberspace after an earlier hearing on state surveillance of the internet. Other participants in the hearing include the former head of Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, Hans Jörg Geiger and international law professor Douwe Korff. US government representatives were invited to the meeting, but declined to attend.