Edward Snowden is front and center again in the news these days. The famous or infamous (depending on your political leanings) information leaker recently addressed the Council of Europe. This is Europe’s top human-rights body which assembled in Strasbourg. Snowden reported via video link from Moscow giving evidence against the NSA. During his presentation, Snowden accused the agency of spying on prominent human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights watch.
Snowden told Council members, ’The NSA has specifically targeted either leaders or staff members in a number of civil and non-governmental organizations…including domestically within the borders of the United States”. Via live video feed he also gave a detailed account of how the NSA’s surveillance programs circumvent and violate the EU privacy laws. He cited programs such as Xkexscore. It uses sophisticated data gathering techniques to screen trillions of private communications. Such practices constitute a significant new threat to civil liberties according to Snowden.
Xkeyscore allows analysts to snoop without prior permission through vast databases containing emails, online chats and the browsing histories of millions of individuals. This practice was conducted without prior judicial approval. In practical terms it meant that ordinary citizens were snooped on though not engaged in any nefarious activities. They simply were caught in the NSA’s ever expanding net of spying.
He also pointed out that the agency monitored travel activities of innocent EU citizens and others not involved in terrorism or any other wrongdoing. The 30-year old whistle blower, who began his intelligence career working for the CIA in Geneva, said the NSA routinely monitored the communications of Swiss nationals, too. They apparently were not alone as many others who accidentally followed a wrong link or downloaded the wrong file were targeted by the spying and caught in the net.
Though this is worrisome enough, Snowden did tone down his rhetoric when queried further. For example, he did not believe the NSA was engaged in such nightmarish scenarios as the compilation of lists of homosexuals. But he was concerned because the program to do things such as that is now in place. Moreover, he indicated mass surveillance to be a global problem. The NSA, its allies, authoritarian governments and even corporations could all abuse the technology. One can only consider the consequences of a program run amok.
The NSA was not he only entity on the hot seat. Snowden also criticized the British spy agency, GCHQ, citing the agencies Optic Nerve program. Under the program they would bulk collect images from Yahoo webcam chats. He pointed out that many of these images were intensely private, often taken from bedrooms of private homes. And even though GCHQ concluded that the vast majority had no intelligence value at all, Optic Nerve continued.
Snowden was quick to emphasize that he did believe in legitimate intelligence operations and was not interested in harming the US government or straining its ties with other countries. He, instead hoped that the NSA would abandon its electronic surveillance of civilian populations and redouble its eavesdropping efforts on traditional targets such as North Korea, terrorists and cyber-actors.
In this environment what can citizens and governments do to protect themselves from unwanted incursions on privacy? Use encryption. Snowden urged members of the Council of Europe to encrypt their personal communications. Used properly, encryption could withstand attacks from powerful spy agencies. This is just another reason for individual users to consider using VPNs, we think.
For his part, Snowden defended his motives which have caused such an international furor. He hoped by his actions and by appearing before assemblies such as this, government practices would improve. He did not wish to see that governments would be brought down as a result. We can only hope that common sense prevails and government spying is reigned in as a result. In the meantime it is a clarion call to all citizens to be vigilant and take precautions when using electronic devices.