The US has targeted prominent human rights organisations and has spied on their staff, Edward Snowden said on Tuesday, giving evidence to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, Europe’s top human rights body.
Speaking via a video connection from Moscow, Snowden said that the National Security Agency – for which he worked as a contractor – had deliberatly snooped on bodies like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
He told MEPs: “The NSA has targeted leaders and staff members of these sorts of organisations, including domestically within the borders of the United States.” Snowden did not reveal which groups the NSA had bugged.
But in live testimony, Snowden gave a forensic account of how the NSA's powerful surveilllance programs violate the EU's privacy laws.
He said programs such as XKeyscore, revealed by the Guardian last July, use sophisticated data mining techniques to track “trillions” of private communications. “This technology offers the most significant new threat to civil liberties in the modern era,” he declared.
XKeyscore allows analysts to search with no prior authorisation through vast databases containing emails, online chats, and the browsing histories of millions of individuals.
Snowden said on Tuesday that he and other analysts were able to use the tool to select an individual’s metadata and content “without judicial approval or prior review”.
In practical terms, this meant the agency was targeting citizens not involved in any nefarious activities, he stressed. The NSA operated a “de facto policy of guilt by association”, he added.
Snowden said the agency, for example, monitored the travel patterns of innocent EU citizens not involved in terrorism or any wrongdoing.
The 30-year-old whistleblower- who began his intelligence career working for the CIA in Geneva – said the NSA also routinely monitored the communications of Swiss nationals “across specific routes”.
Others who fell under its purview included people who accidentally clicked on the wrong link, downloaded the wrong file, or who visited a sex forum.
The Council of Europe invited the White House to give evidence but it declined. The EU body defended its decision to invite Snowden to testify.
In a statement on Monday, it said: “Edward Snowden has triggered a massive public debate on privacy in the internet age. We hope to ask him what his revelations mean for ordinary users and how they should protect their privacy and what kind of restrictions Europe should impose on state surveillance.”