June 10, 2013

The Geek that Knew Too Much Why #NSA IT Guy Leaked Top Secret Documents

Why NSA IT Guy Edward Snowden Leaked Top Secret Documents - Forbes

Edward Snowden

When the Washington Post described the person who leaked a NSA PowerPoint presentation about “PRISM” as a “career intelligence officer,” I was expecting the kind of 50-something technocrat that Bryan Cranston would play in the inevitable movie about the ‘NSA Papers.’ But on Sunday, the Guardian revealed that the person behind a series of leaks that have provided an unprecedented peek into how one of America’s most secretive spy agencies works is a 29-year-old high school drop-out whose computing skills allowed him to get jobs with the CIA and contractors for the National Security Agency.

This may be the NSA office in Hawaii from which Edward Snowden worked. Seriously. (screenshot of NSA press release on center's opening)

Edward Snowden tells the Guardian that he had a $200,000 job with defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton — to that company’s chagrin — doing work for the NSA at its office in Hawaii. That office is likely the rainbow-shooting $358 million Hawaii center cited in a 2012 NSA press release which is tasked with processing “data from a broad variety of sources at various classification levels” and “eliminating physical, virtual, and other barriers to information sharing.” Snowden certainly did the latter, though not as the NSA intended it, sharing with the press top secret documents about the degree to which telecoms and Internet companies pass along customers’ data to the NSA, presidential preparation for cyberattacks on other countries, and the tools the NSA uses to monitor the healthiness of its global information collection. All these documents are available on the Guardian site here. Snowden took the documents to Glenn Greenwald at the Guardian after the Washington Post failed to publish the PowerPoint presentation within a 72-hour deadline he set, writes Barton Gellman.

NSA Contractor Booz Allen Hamilton Rushes To Distance Itself From Staffer Who Leaked Top Secret Docs Andy Greenberg Forbes Staff

Snowden describes himself as a systems administrator, which basically means he was an NSA IT guy. And like the IT guys in any office, he could see (and capture) many of the documents flying around on his network. (And that my friends, is one reason why you shouldn’t sext on company devices or from company email accounts; IT guys see all.) He describes himself in a video on the Guardian site as “being able to see everything;” he had the kind of spying ability on the NSA that it would love to have on the wider Internet.

“When you’re in positions of privileged access, like a systems administrator for the intelligence community agencies, you’re exposed to a lot more information on a broader scale than the average employee,” says Snowden in a video. “Because of that you see things that may be disturbing. Over the course of a normal person’s career, you’d only see one or two instances, but when you see everything, you see them on a more frequent basis.”

And he happened to be a libertarian-leaning, Internet-freedom-loving geek, judging from donations he made to the Ron Paul campaign and the EFF and Tor stickers on his laptop. In other words, exactly the kind of person who would be alarmed by the kind of documents he was seeing floating around the NSA about Verizon turning over call records and Internet companies being part of secret programs to turn over user data.

But the director of national intelligence’s claim that many of the documents being released were being misinterpreted because they were being taken out of context is now more understandable. Snowden wasn’t involved in these programs; he was just seeing documents — and I assume — seeing chatter about them. That’s how he took this PowerPoint slide describing the NSA’s ability to both gather data flowing through fiber-optic cables (which confirms a long-held allegation by whistleblowers) and to get data “directly from the servers of these U.S. Internet providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Paltalk, AOL, YouTube, Skype, Apple” to mean that the government had “direct access” to those companies’ servers. Since then, it’s emerged that it’s a more complicated process that does involve court orders and is directed only at non-U.S. citizens… which won’t be especially reassuring to these companies’ customers abroad as noted by David Kirkpatrick.

Many people see objectionable practices in their workplaces. Most grumble to colleagues or complain to a sympathetic spouse. Why did Snowden decide to share what he saw with the world, torpedoing his $200,000 job, forcing him to flee the country and hole up in a Hong Kong hotel, and risking a lifetime in prison if he’s successfully prosecuted for violating the Espionage Act? He has been interviewed by the Guardian and by the Washington Post about why he leaked the documents; here’s a collection of his quotes explaining his motivation:
  • Concern about how easy it is to spy on people given the way we live today: “The internet is… a TV that watches you. The majority of people in developed countries spend at least some time interacting with the Internet, and governments are abusing that necessity in secret to extend their powers beyond what is necessary and appropriate.” (Washington Post)
  • Fear of a surveillance state: “I believe that, at this point in history, the greatest danger to our freedom and way of life comes from the reasonable fear of omniscient State powers kept in check by nothing more than policy documents… It is not that I do not value intelligence, but that I oppose . . . omniscient, automatic, mass surveillance. . . . That seems to me a greater threat to the institutions of free society than missed intelligence reports, and unworthy of the costs.” (Washington Post)
  • To encourage other whistleblowers: He wanted “to embolden others to step forward” by showing that “they can win.” (Washington Post)
  • To let people in on what they don’t usually get to see: “I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed even for an instant.” (Washington Post) // “I think the public is owed an explanation of the motivations behind the people who make these disclosures outside the democratic model… My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.” (The Guardian)
  • Because he thinks these programs should be debated openly, and not just by government officials in the U.S.: “[T]he debate which I hope this will trigger among citizens around the globe about what kind of world we want to live in.” (The Guardian)
  • Because the revelation was worth more than a happy life with his girlfriend and “a high-paying job in paradise”: “If living unfreely but comfortably is something you’re willing to accept, you can get up everyday, go to work and collect your large paycheck for relatively little work against the public interest and go to sleep at night after watching your shows. But if you realize that’s the world you helped create and it’s going to get worse with the next generation and the next generation who extend the capabilities of this sort of architecture of oppression, you realize you might be willing to accept any risk and it doesn’t matter what the outcome is as matter as the public gets to decide how that’s applied… I’m willing to sacrifice all of that because I can’t in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.” (The Guardian)
  • Because he could: “I’m no different from anyone else. I don’t have special skills. I’m just another guy who sits there day to day, watches what’s happening and goes, ‘This is something that’s not our place to decide.’ The public needs to decide whether these policies or programs are right or wrong. I’m willing to go on the record to defend the authenticity of them. This is the truth, this is what’s happening. you should decide whether we should be doing this.” (Video on the Guardian)
  • Allegedly not for the fame: “I’ve been a spy for almost all of my adult life — I don’t like being in the spotlight.” (Washington Post) // “I don’t want public attention because I don’t want the story to be about me. I want it to be about what the US government is doing.” (The Guardian)
  • Because what he saw makes him feel like he’s living in a sci-fi novel about a totalitarian state: “They are intent on making every conversation and every form of behaviour in the world known to them.” (The Guardian) // “Even if you’re not doing anything wrong, you’re being watched and recorded… you don’t have to do anything wrong, you simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody even by a wrong call and then they can use the system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with and attack you on that basis to derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer.” (Video on the Guardian)
  • Not because he thinks the government is a pushover: In a note to reporters when releasing the documents, says Gellman, he wrote that the U.S. intelligence community “will most certainly kill you if they think you are the single point of failure that could stop this disclosure and make them the sole owner of this information.” (Washington Post)
  • Because he loves the concept of privacy: “I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity.” (The Guardian)

Why NSA IT Guy Edward Snowden Leaked Top Secret Documents - Forbes

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