Edward Snowden gained fame as a whistle-blower, and he continues to reveal valuable information about the government’s spying program. Today Snowden announced that the US was spying on human rights organizations. The announcement was given to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, one of the largest human rights bodies in the world. Snowden, of course, gave his talk from Moscow, where he is currently in asylum.
Leaders of prominent human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were specifically targeted, both in the United States as well as abroad. Members of the council asked Snowden whether the NSA had gained access to highly sensitive communications of human rights organizations. Snowden’s response: ‘The answer is without question: Yes, absolutely.
Snowden also used the opportunity to address a recent NSA claim that he had stolen nearly 2 million documents from the agency. He said that number represents the entire number of documents Snowden ever interacted with during his time working for the agency, but not what he stole.
But the real concern remained with the direct violation of rights by the US government on agencies dedicated to improving human rights around the world. Programs like XKeyscore mine data to retrieve trillions of private messaging. This represents a significant threat to civil liberties, Snowden said.
Without judicial approval, Snowden was able to search through databases containing emails, chat, and browsing history. In this way, the agency was tracking completely innocent citizens. He told the council that he was able to retrieve data from entire populations. He sometimes was instructed to target his spying on people based on their religious beliefs, sexual identity, political affiliations, transaction with specific businesses, and gun ownership.
While the government wasn’t planning on participating in any ‘nightmare scenarios,’ such as using lists of a select group of people in order to ’round them up and send them to camps.’ But now the infrastructure exists. Anyone who got ahold of this technology could abuse it. For this reason, the program is a global problem.
Snowden’s talk was impassioned, with council members asking him to slow down so that translators could catch up. The technical nature of much of the talk also made it difficult to understand at times. But the message was received. It is unclear at the moment how the human rights world will respond to this alarming information, but we can expect some statements coming out over the next hours and days.