Edward Snowden’s testimony to the European Parliament Inquiry Into Mass Surveillance

Extracted from Techdirt, this is Glyn Moody’s analysis and commentary on Snowden’s Testimony to the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs committee inquiry on the mass electronic surveillance of EU citizens. If you’d rather read Snowden’s testimony directly, you can find it in this link.

Edward Snowden

A few weeks back, we reported that the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) committee planned to send some questions to Edward Snowden as part of its inquiry on electronic mass surveillance of EU citizens. He’s now replied to these, prefacing them with a short statement (pdf — embedded below.) Although there are no major revelations — he specifically states that he will not be disclosing anything not already published — it does contain many important clarifications and interesting comments. For example, he confirms that:

The NSA granted me the authority to monitor communications world-wide using its mass surveillance systems, including within the United States. I have personally targeted individuals using these systems under both the President of the United States’ Executive Order 12333 and the US Congress’ FAA 702. I know the good and the bad of these systems, and what they can and cannot do, and I am telling you that without getting out of my chair, I could have read the private communications of any member of this [LIBE] committee, as well as any ordinary citizen. I swear under penalty of perjury that this is true

Before moving on to the parliamentarian’s questions, he concludes his opening statement as follows:

For the record, I also repeat my willingness to provide testimony to the United States Congress, should they decide to consider the issue of unconstitutional mass surveillance.

The first question from the MEPs on the committee concerns the extent of the cooperation between the NSA and EU member states. Snowden’s answer includes some new background information on what’s been going on here:

One of the foremost activities of the NSA’s FAD, or Foreign Affairs Division, is to pressure or incentivize EU member states to change their laws to enable mass surveillance. Lawyers from the NSA, as well as the UK’s GCHQ, work very hard to search for loopholes in laws and constitutional protections that they can use to justify indiscriminate, dragnet surveillance operations that were at best unwittingly authorized by lawmakers. These efforts to interpret new powers out of vague laws is an intentional strategy to avoid public opposition and lawmakers’ insistence that legal limits be respected, effects the GCHQ internally described in its own documents as “damaging public debate.”

That makes a mockery of the UK government’s insistence that GCHQ’s actions were always “within the law”: that’s only true to the extent that the agency happily exploited to the maximum loopholes its lawyers have spotted in the already weak UK legislation covering this area. In terms of the spying programs, Snowden hints that there’s much more to come, and underlines that revealing them is now a matter for journalists, not for him:

There are many other undisclosed programs that would impact EU citizens’ rights, but I will leave the public interest determinations as to which of these may be safely disclosed to responsible journalists in coordination with government stakeholders.

Another question probed the options for raising concerns about spying programs, and asked him whether he thought he had exhausted them before deciding to leak the documents himself. He explained that he had reported programs that seemed problematic to “more than ten distinct officials, none of whom took any action to address them.” So much for the idea that he didn’t try hard enough to use official channels before taking more drastic action. On the question of what the European Parliament could do to help him, Snowden’s answer is characteristically self-effacing:

If you want to help me, help me by helping everyone: declare that the indiscriminate, bulk collection of private data by governments is a violation of our rights and must end. What happens to me as a person is less important than what happens to our common rights.

But he then goes on to say:

As for asylum, I do seek EU asylum, but I have yet to receive a positive response to the requests I sent to various EU member states. Parliamentarians in the national governments have told me that the US, and I quote, “will not allow” EU partners to offer political asylum to me, which is why the previous resolution on asylum ran into such mysterious opposition. I would welcome any offer of safe passage or permanent asylum, but I recognize that would require an act of extraordinary political courage.

Sadly, it seems unlikely that political courage will be forthcoming given the extremely weak responses from European governments to the spying leaks. Snowden was also asked about economic espionage:

global surveillance capabilities are being used on a daily basis for the purpose of economic espionage. That a major goal of the US Intelligence Community is to produce economic intelligence is the worst kept secret in Washington.

In this context he makes an astute observation:

Recently, governments have shifted their talking points from claiming they only use mass surveillance for “national security” purposes to the more nebulous “valid foreign intelligence purposes.” I suggest this committee consider that this rhetorical shift is a tacit acknowledgment by governments that they recognize they have crossed beyond the boundaries of justifiable activities..

He also elaborates on an early comment that encryption, done properly, does offer a measure of protection against the kind of surveillance programs he has revealed:

The good news is that there are solutions. The weakness of mass surveillance is that it can very easily be made much more expensive through changes in technical standards: pervasive, end-to-end encryption can quickly make indiscriminate surveillance impossible on a cost-effective basis. The result is that governments are likely to fall back to traditional, targeted surveillance founded upon an individualized suspicion.

In other words, encryption brings a double benefit. It helps preserve people’s privacy and freedom, and thanks to the high costs of breaking properly-encrypted communications, it encourages governments to move back to the older, more targetted kind of spying that Snowden himself calls “above reproach”. Finally, he was asked some more hostile questions from the right-leaning members of the committee, including whether the Russian secret service had approached him:

Of course. Even the secret service of Andorra would have approached me, if they had had the chance: that’s their job.

But I didn’t take any documents with me from Hong Kong, and while I’m sure they were disappointed, it doesn’t take long for an intelligence service to realize when they’re out of luck. I was also accompanied at all times by an utterly fearless journalist [WikiLeaks’ Sarah Harrison] with one of the biggest megaphones in the world, which is the equivalent of Kryptonite for spies. As a consequence, we spent the next 40 days trapped in an airport instead of sleeping on piles of money while waiting for the next parade. But we walked out with heads held high.

As that hints, it’s an eloquent and important document that is worth reading in its entirety. It not only adds useful details to many of the facts that have been published earlier, but also underlines the consistently rigorous and moral approach that Snowden has taken from the beginning.

Follow Glyn’s work in @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+

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