Edward Snowden tells European Parliament how local spies aid NSA surveillance


NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has sent testimony (PDF) to a European Parliament inquiry about the mass surveillance activities he exposed — particularly as they relate to the monitoring of Europeans — and his motives for doing so.

In the long-awaited testimony, Snowden said he had raised his concerns about bulk surveillance to “more than ten distinct officials, none of whom took any action to address them,” before he approached journalists. He also insisted he had no relationship with either the Russian or Chinese governments, but confirmed he had been approached by the secret service in Russia, where he has temporary asylum.

“Even the secret service of Andorra would have approached me, if they had had the chance: that’s their job,” Snowden wrote. “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.”

Surveillance “bazaar”

None of the testimony was new information as such, because Snowden was loath to pre-empt the stories of the journalists to whom he has given NSA and GCHQ documents. Much of it was a restatement of his belief that mass surveillance programs are entirely unjustified and a waste of resources that could be spent “running down real leads.”

That said, Snowden did provide a useful summation of the stories that have come out about the NSA network of partnerships with European intelligence agencies. He said the NSA helped these agencies find and exploit loopholes in their national privacy laws, or repeal restrictions. Combined with the NSA’s deals with the companies that run major telecommunications cables, this ultimately lets the NSA spy on everyone:

“The result is a European bazaar, where an EU member state like Denmark may give the NSA access to a tapping center on the (unenforceable) condition that NSA doesn’t search it for Danes, and Germany may give the NSA access to another on the condition that it doesn’t search for Germans. Yet the two tapping sites may be two points on the same cable, so the NSA simply captures the communications of the German citizens as they transit Denmark, and the Danish citizens as they transit Germany, all the while considering it entirely in accordance with their agreements. Ultimately, each EU national government’s spy services are independently hawking domestic accesses to the NSA, GCHQ, FRA, and the like without having any awareness of how their individual contribution is enabling the greater patchwork of mass surveillance against ordinary citizens as a whole.”

The former analyst said there were “many other undisclosed programs that would impact EU citizens’ rights,” but he would leave decisions over their potential disclosure to “responsible journalists in coordination with government stakeholders.”

Snowden added that he does seek asylum in the EU, but no member state has agreed to take him. “Parliamentarians in the national governments have told me that the U.S., 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.”

Crucial timing

“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 committee, as well as any ordinary citizen,” Snowden wrote. “I swear under penalty of perjury that this is true.”

The timing of this testimony is crucial, as it comes days before the European Parliament considers what to do with a draft report that calls for the suspension of the so-called Safe Harbor agreement. This agreement allows U.S. web firms to self-certify that they adhere to EU-grade data protection laws, and Snowden’s revelations have cast major doubts on its effectiveness.

If Safe Harbor is frozen, companies like Google will face potential problems in legally handling the personal data of their European customers.

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