Snowden to EU: NSA Spying distracts from real threats

The National Security Agency’s (NSA) controversial sweeping surveillance distracts the agency from real threats, former government contractor Edward Snowden told European lawmakers this week.

“Suspicionless surveillance not only fails to make us safe, but it actually makes us less safe,” Snowden wrote in testimony to European Union Parliament members published on Friday.

“By squandering precious, limited resources on ‘collecting it all,’ we end up with more analysts trying to make sense of harmless political dissent and fewer investigators running down real leads,” he said.

Snowden’s testimony is a response to a request from the European lawmakers, who are conducting a review of government surveillance — including the NSA’s sweeping surveillance programs. Last year, Snowden leaked up to 200,000 classified U.S. documents to the media.

Snowden pointed to government reports that questioned the efficacy of the mass surveillance programs as a tool to stop terrorist attacks, including a report from the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.

That oversight group “discovered the United States was operating an unlawful mass surveillance program, and the greatest success the program had ever produced was discovering a taxi driver in the United States transferring $8,500 dollars to Somalia in 2007,” he said.

At the same time, intelligence agencies failed to prevent terrorist activities about which it had warnings, Snowden wrote. He cited Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the suspects in last year’s Boston Marathon bombing and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who failed to detonate a bomb he smuggled onto an airplane in 2009.

“The resources that could have paid for a real investigation had been spent on monitoring the call records of everyone in America,” he said.

Snowden also discussed technological steps that could be taken to make mass surveillance programs like those run by the NSA impractical.

“The weakness of mass surveillance is that it can very easily be made much more expensive through changes to technical standards: pervasive, end-to-end encryption can quickly make indiscriminate surveillance impossible on a cost-effective basis,” he said.

In response to a question from Jan Philipp Albrecht, a member of the European Union Parliament and the Greens party, Snowden said that U.S. agencies did carry out cyberattacks against the EU, the United Nations and European companies, including telecommunications companies. 

“And I expect similar operations will be revealed in the future that affect many more ordinary citizens,” Snowden said, noting that he did not want his responses “to outpace the efforts of journalists” who are going through the documents he provided.