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.”

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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.

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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.


“We’re going to take cheap wood and turn it into a valuable high-tech product”

From allowing man to make fire to being used as paper, trees have enabled us humans to advance dramatically – but now they can be used to create high-tech storage devices.

The discovery by chemists at Oregon State University, US, means that trees can be used to help power new cars, electronics and even in the aviation industry.

Scientists – who were barking up the right tree – found that cellulose, a key component of plant cells, can be heated in the presence of ammonia and turned into a key component for supercapacitors.

The exposure to high heat and ammonia converts the cellulose from the trees to a carbon material, which is needed for supercapacitors.

Supercapacitors, which can hold more power than a battery, can be used in computers and consumer electronic,s as well as heavy industries to power items as large as cranes.

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A supercapacitor can capture energy that might otherwise be wasted, such as in braking operations. Their energy storage abilities may help ‘smooth out’ the power flow from alternative energy systems, such as wind energy.

They can power a defibrillator, open the emergency slides on an aircraft and greatly improve the efficiency of hybrid electric automobiles.

They can also be charged quickly, but will equally lose that charge quicker than batteries.

David Xiulei Ji, from the university, said: “There are many applications of supercapacitors around the world, but right now the field is constrained by cost.”

“If we use this very fast, simple process to make these devices much less expensive, there could be huge benefits.”

He continued: “It’s surprising that such a basic reaction was not reported before. Not only are there industrial applications, but this opens a whole new scientific area, studying reducing gas agents for carbon activation.

“We’re going to take cheap wood and turn it into a valuable high-tech product.”

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The findings will also lead to the ability to produce supercapacitors at a much cheaper cost than has been previously possible, the university says.

As well as being cheaper the production of the electrodes of a supercapacitor will also be able to be done in an environmentally friendly way.

Ji, an assistant professor of chemistry at the university, said: “The ease, speed and potential of this process is really exciting.

“For the first time we’ve proven that you can react cellulose with ammonia and create these N-doped nanoporous carbon membranes.”

The membranes at the nano-scale are incredibly thin. A single gram of them can have a surfaces area of nearly 2,000 square metres. This is what allows them to be useful in supercapacitors.


 Final image courtesy of David Xiulei Ji / Oregon State University