NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has revealed that U.S. government intelligence agencies spied on NGOs and human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as part of its dragnet mass surveillance programs.
Snowden was giving testimony, via video-link, to the Council of Europe at a parliamentary hearing on mass surveillance taking place in Strasbourg today.
“The U.S. National Security Agency has a directorate that has worked to intentionally subvert the privacy laws and constitutional protections of EU member states against mass surveillance,” said Snowden reading a prepared statement to the Council.
“The body of public evidence indicates mass surveillances results in societies that are not only less liberal, but less safe.”
“I am proud of the fact that despite the dramatic protestations of intelligence chiefs, no evidence has been shown by any government that the revelations of the last year have caused any specific harm,” he added. “My motivation is to improve government, not to bring it down.”
The Council had provided Snowden with a series of questions to which he responded to in the testimony.
“The reports of intelligence agencies using mass surveillance intelligence agencies to monitor peaceful groups unrelated to any terrorist threat or nation security purpose, such as the United Nation’s Children’s Fund, or spying on American lawyers negotiating trade deals, are in fact accurate,” said Snowden.
“The NSA has in fact specifically targeted the communications of either leaders or staff members of purely civilian or human rights organizations… including domestically within the borders of the U.S.,” he added.
Snowden was also asked by the Council whether the NSA does data-mining analysis on the data it captures via its dragnet surveillance programs. “Yes. Algorithms are used to determine unknown persons of interest who are not actually suspected of any wrongdoing,” he responded.
He went on to describe in detail the workings and capabilities of the NSA’s XKeyscore framework, which he said allows for the creation of electronic “fingerprints” that can be used to track whatever individuals and groups the agencies choose to target.
“[Fingerprints] can be used to construct a kind of unique signature for any individual or group’s communications which are often comprised of a collection of ‘selectors’ such as email addresses, phone numbers or user names. This allows state security bureaus to instantly identify the movements and activity of you, your computers or other devices, your personal internet accounts or even keywords or 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, much like a fingerprint that you would leave on the handle of your door… However… that is the smallest part of the NSA’s fingerprinting capability.
“You must first understand that any kind of Internet traffic that passes before these mass surveillance sensors can be analyzed in a protocol-agnostic manner, meta-data and content both, and it can be today, right now, searched not only with very little effort, via a complex regular expression — which is a type of shorthand programming — but also via any algorithm an analyst can implement in popular high level programming,” he said.
“This provides a capability for analysts to do things like associate unique identifiers assigned to untargeted individuals via unencrypted commercial advertising networks, through cookies or other trackers, common tracking means used for businesses every day, with personal details such as an individual’s precise identity, their geographical location, their political affiliations, their place of work, their computer operating system and other technical details, their sexual orientation, their personal interests, and so on and so forth.”
“There are very few practical limitations to the kind of analysis that can be technically performed in this manner, short of the actual imagination of the analysts themselves, and this kind of complex analysis is in fact performed today using these systems,” he added.
Snowden said the use of XKeyscore has “clearly been disproportionate”, describing the technology itself as “extraordinarily invasive”.
“The screening of trillions… of private communications for the vaguest indications of association or some other nebulous pre-criminal activity is a violation of the human right to be free from unwarrented interference,” he told the Council.
To underscore the scope of XKeyscore’s capabilities he cited examples of potential persons whose tracking could be automated using the technology — such as the people parents choose to share photos of their children with, or every homosexual or Christian in a particular country.
And while he said the NSA is not engaged in any “nightmare scenarios” such as compiling lists of those with a particular sexual orientation for the purpose of rounding them up in order to remove them from the general population, he stressed that the technology apparatus capable of doing that has already been created — and that “deeply implicates our human rights”.
“We have to recognise that the infrastructure for such activities has been built,” he noted.
Fingerprints have already been used to track people who have followed the wrong link on an Internet site, or who have visited an Internet sex forum, or downloaded a particular file, or logged onto a suspect network, or who have just booked a flight, according to Snowden.
It is also being used for general law enforcement — even for non-violence offenses — despite there being no warrants or judicial oversight attached to such activity, he said. “These technical capabilities don’t merely exist, they are already in place and are actively being used.”
“We have an obligation to develop international standards to protect against the routine and substantial abuse of this technology, abuses that are ongoing today,” he added. “This not just a problem for the US or EU. This is in fact a global problem.”
Snowden argued that the use of dragnet surveillance programs by Western governments sets up a “dangerous precedent” that “potentially legitimizes authoritarian governments”.
Dragnet surveillance has also been shown to be ineffective for preventing terrorism, he added — stating that the U.S. government has itself conceded this point — and said such programs have no basis in law.
“This technology represents… what I would consider the most significant new threat to civil rights in modern times,” he added.
Snowden’s testimony to the Council can be viewed in full here.