What if the people running our secret programs are idiots?
So it turns out that even as President Obama dismissed Edward Snowden the other day as "a 29 year old hacker " the NSA hired hired him to do just that. Surprised? I'm not. The minute I saw the "offensive cyberwar" documents in the Guardian I figured as much.
Anyway, this information is revealed in this comprehensive synthesis of the case by Scott Shane and David Sanger in today's New York Times:
[H]is last job before leaking classified documents about N.S.A. surveillance, he told the news organization The Guardian, was actually “infrastructure analyst.”
I have wondered since this whole thing began why nobody in the agency has lost his job or why Booz Allen has not been stripped of its agency contracts. Did nobody think that hiring hackers to hack might result in being hacked themselves? Is it even possible to truly guard against this? The article implies that they were shocked to find out that these highly skilled computer nerds might be smart enough to skirt whatever security they had in place. Which means these agencies and companies are being led by morons.
It is a title that officials have carefully avoided mentioning, perhaps for fear of inviting questions about the agency’s aggressive tactics: an infrastructure analyst at the N.S.A., like a burglar casing an apartment building, looks for new ways to break into Internet and telephone traffic around the world.
First there's the big picture of what the NSA is doing:
It turns out that this isn't just "cyberwar planning" which everyone assured me was just a contingency, despite the fact that the documents clearly showed that it was planning for offensive war. These hackers are employed to actually get into systems all over the world to set up such an event. That's a step beyond mere planning.
A close reading of Mr. Snowden’s documents shows the extent to which the eavesdropping agency now has two new roles: It is a data cruncher, with an appetite to sweep up, and hold for years, a staggering variety of information. And it is an intelligence force armed with cyberweapons, assigned not just to monitor foreign computers but also, if necessary, to attack.
After the 2001 terrorist attacks, the documents suggest, the N.S.A. decided it was too risky to wait for leads on specific suspects before going after relevant phone and Internet records. So it followed the example of the hoarder who justifies stacks of paper because someday, somehow, a single page could prove vitally important.
The agency began amassing databases of “metadata” — logs of all telephone calls collected from the major carriers and similar data on e-mail traffic. The e-mail program was halted in 2011, though it appears possible that the same data is now gathered in some other way.
The documents show that America’s phone and Internet companies grew leery of N.S.A. demands as the years passed after 9/11, fearing that customers might be angry to find out their records were shared with the government. More and more, the companies’ lawyers insisted on legal orders to compel them to comply.
So the N.S.A. came up with a solution: store the data itself. That is evidently what gave birth to a vast data storage center that the N.S.A. is building in Utah, exploiting the declining cost of storage and the advance of sophisticated search software.
Those huge databases were once called “bit buckets” in the industry — collections of electronic bits waiting to be sifted. “They park stuff in storage in the hopes that they will eventually have time to get to it,” said James Lewis, a cyberexpert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “or that they’ll find something that they need to go back and look for in the masses of data.” But, he added, “most of it sits and is never looked at by anyone.”
Indeed, an obscure passage in one of the Snowden documents — rules for collecting Internet data that the Obama administration wrote in secret in 2009 and that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court approved — suggested that the government was concerned about its ability to process all the data it was collecting. So it got the court to approve an exception allowing the government to hold on to that information if it could not keep up. The rules said that “the communications that may be retained” for up to five years “include electronic communications acquired because of the limitation on the N.S.A.’s ability to filter communications.”
As one private expert who sometimes advises the N.S.A. on this technology put it: “This means that if you can’t desalinate all the seawater at once, you get to hold on to the ocean until you figure it out.”
Collecting that ocean requires the brazen efforts of tens of thousands of technicians like Mr. Snowden. On Thursday, President Obama played down Mr. Snowden’s importance, perhaps concerned that the manhunt was itself damaging the image and diplomatic relations of the United States. “No, I’m not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker,” the president said during a stop in Senegal.
Mr. Obama presumably meant the term to be dismissive, suggesting that Mr. Snowden (who turned 30 on June 21) was a young computer delinquent. But as an N.S.A. infrastructure analyst, Mr. Snowden was, in a sense, part of the United States’ biggest and most skilled team of hackers.
The N.S.A., Mr. Snowden’s documents show, has worked with its British counterpart, Government Communications Headquarters, to tap into hundreds of fiber-optic cables that cross the Atlantic or go on into Europe, with the N.S.A. helping sort the data. The disclosure revived old concerns that the British might be helping the N.S.A. evade American privacy protections, an accusation that American officials flatly deny.
And a secret presidential directive on cyberactivities unveiled by Mr. Snowden — discussing the primary new task of the N.S.A. and its military counterpart, Cyber Command — makes clear that when the agency’s technicians probe for vulnerabilities to collect intelligence, they also study foreign communications and computer systems to identify potential targets for a future cyberwar.
Infrastructure analysts like Mr. Snowden, in other words, are not just looking for electronic back doors into Chinese computers or Iranian mobile networks to steal secrets. They have a new double purpose: building a target list in case American leaders in a future conflict want to wipe out the computers’ hard drives or shut down the phone system.
I don't think we the people have weighed in on this nor has anyone thought through the ramifications of doing such work. It is extremely dangerous, done entirely in secret and obviously with few safeguards. I can't believe that people can't see how this sort of thing could go very sideways very quickly
Setting aside the undemocratic and authoritarian aspect of all this, on a practical level this offensive cyberwar planning is an accident waiting to happen. From the looks of it, most of the people engaging in this planning are as deluded as those who Barbara Tuchman profiles in her great book The Guns of August, which showed a similar febrile eagerness among the boys running the great powers before WWI to use their shiny new toys and enact their shiny new war plans --- and a similar lack of understanding among these boys about how their new technology changes the nature of warfare.
(Seriously, does James Clapper seem like the kind of guy who's got a handle on all this stuff? Even if you believe it's a good idea, wouldn't it be prudent to at least have competent people in charge of it?)
We know this is an attack on Americas' civil liberties and potential cyberwar (which will likely morph quickly into real violence if it ever happens.) It's about more than that:
In fact, as Mr. Snowden’s documents have shown, the omnivorous agency’s operations range far beyond terrorism, targeting foreigners of any conceivable interest. British eavesdroppers working with the N.S.A. penetrated London meetings of the Group of 20 industrialized nations, partly by luring delegates to fake Internet cafes, and the N.S.A. hacked into computers at Chinese universities.
Ooops. Looks like somebody leaked some classified information there. And if their logic is correct, by saying what they said, the terrorists now know that the US knows they've changed their MO. Loose lips sink ships dontcha know. Of course that's nonsense. Only the dumbest and least likely to succeed of terrorists were Skyping their attack planning ... But, it's increasingly clear that we're using this capability for the boondoggle also known as the drug war, which means this information must be being shared with the DEA and the FBI. (Everybody on board with that?)
At Fort Meade, on the N.S.A.’s heavily guarded campus off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway in Maryland, such disclosures are seen as devastating tip-offs to targets. The disclosure in Mr. Snowden’s documents that Skype is cooperating with orders to turn over data to the N.S.A., for example, undermined a widespread myth that the agency could not intercept the voice-over-Internet service. Warned, in effect, by Mr. Snowden, foreign officials, drug cartel leaders and terrorists may become far more careful about how, and how much, they communicate.
In fact it looks to me as if a large portion of the program probably isn't about terrorism at all. One could even easily surmise that commercial spying might be part of this endeavor if they were hacking the Group of 20 and Chinese universities. Maybe it's time someone asked just what national security interests are being served by all this spying. Oh wait, we can't. It's secret.
But we don't have to worry our pretty little heads. The authorities are conducting a secret assessment of what happened and will fix it. We won't know about it because it's classified, but you can trust the professionals.
Unfortunately, up until now it apparently never occurred to these geniuses that someone on the inside might be offended by what they were doing:
The N.S.A.’s assessment of Mr. Snowden’s case will likely also consider what has become, for intelligence officials, a chilling consideration: there are thousands of people of his generation and computer skills at the agency, hired in recent years to keep up with the communications boom.
They should be worried they don't have an apocalyptic Christian on the payroll or someone who is willing to secretly trade money for information. If this is the first time it's occurred to them that their hired hackers might not be good little soldiers then clearly this secret program is run by idiots who are running amock. And I'm not talking about Edward Snowden.
The officials fear that some of them, like young computer aficionados outside the agency, might share Mr. Snowden’s professed libertarian streak and skepticism of the government’s secret power. Intelligence bosses are keeping a closer eye on them now, hoping that there is not another self-appointed whistle-blower in their midst.