Edward Snowden: NSA fingerprinting technology is significant threat to civil rights

Edward Snowden, the former US National Security Agency systems administrator and government whistleblower, today described the fingerprinting technology used by the NSA to identify and collection data about individuals and groups as a threat to civil rights and open to abuse.

Speaking at a Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe hearing on mass surveillance via video link from Moscow, Russia, Snowden said:  “This technology represents the most significant new threat to civil rights in modern times.”


Snowden also warned that the technology would be particularly dangerous in the hands of “bad actors” as it enables the capturing of significant personal data about individuals or groups with particular interests, preferences or causes, making it a potential tool for persecution.

He called for the establishment of international standards to prevent misuse of the technology, something that at present does not exist.

“We have an obligation to put together international standards to prevent abuse of this technology,” he said.

Snowden, who has been permitted to stay in Russia under temporary asylum, explained that the fingerprinting technology known as XKeystore is designed to use keywords and similar to indentify an individual or group and capture detailed private data about them.

“These fingerprints can be used to construct a kind of unique signature for any individual or group’s communications,” he explained.

He said that data such as an individual’s name, workplace, sexual orientation or personal orientation could be used as an identifier and a reason to collect data on them, and confirmed that the US government does use this system for such purposes as he himself had carried out such tasks whilst working as an NSA contractor.


Snowden described the system as employing a “de facto policy of assigning guilt by association”, as it enables the NSA to track mass populations that share a trait.

Among the types of approaches that could be taken, XKeystore could be used to generate lists of home addresses for people matching certain criteria and discover the friends of an individual, including which friends were the closest to the person in question.

He also said that the technology had been used to “track, intercept and monitor the travels of innocent citizens only guilty of booking a flight”, “identify people who have has the bad luck to follow the wrong link on an internet forum”, identify visitors to internet sex forums and identify individuals who have done nothing more than log onto specific networks.

Snowden raised concerns about how such a technology could be used in other countries where persecution of particular groups is a problem.

“The NSA is not engaged in any sort of nightmare scenarios, such a compiling lists of active homosexuals and rounding them up and putting them into camps,” said Snowden, adding that such a practice would be possible with the technology in the wrong hands.

Final image courtesy of Steve Rhodes.

Google’s Big Data Flu Predictions Overestimate Illness by 50%

A group of scientists have said that Google, Facebook and Twitter could be looking at big data incorrectly after they found errors in the search-giant’s flu predictions.

Researchers from the University of Houston, US, have analysed Google’s Flu Trends tool which aims to predict levels of flu in real-time around the world.

The trending tool looks at search terms from across the globe to estimate flu activity around the world. But the researchers found that Google’s tool overestimated the prevalence of flu during the 2012-13.

They claim that it overestimated the actual levels of flu in 2011-12 by more than 50%, and found that between 2011 and 2013 the trends tool over predicted the prevalence of flu in 100 out of 108 weeks.

The report also questioned the use of data collection from platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. The scientists questioned how easy it is for campaigns and companies to manipulate these platforms to ensure their products are trending, for example in polling trends and market popularity.

“Google Flu Trend is an amazing piece of engineering and a very useful tool, but it also illustrates where ‘big data’ analysis can go wrong,” said Ryan Kennedy, University of Houston political science professor.

He said: “Many sources of ‘big data’ come from private companies, who, just like Google, are constantly changing their service in accordance with their business model.

“We need a better understanding of how this affects the data they produce; otherwise we run the risk of drawing incorrect conclusions and adopting improper policies.”

The flu trends tool is part of Google’s range of trending information that allows users to explore around topics based on the number of searches that are happening around the world.


The Google Flu trends website says: “We have found a close relationship between how many people search for flu-related topics and how many people actually have flu symptoms. Of course, not every person who searches for “flu” is actually sick, but a pattern emerges when all the flu-related search queries are added together.

“We compared our query counts with traditional flu surveillance systems and found that many search queries tend to be popular exactly when flu season is happening.”

Kennedy question the use of big data and said it is important to use many sources, he said: “Our analysis of Google Flu demonstrates that the best results come from combining information and techniques from both sources.

“Instead of talking about a ‘big data revolution’, we should be discussing an ‘all data revolution’, where new technologies and techniques allow us to do more and better analysis of all kinds.”