A week after Edward Snowden's leaks about National Security Agency surveillance and data-gathering were first reported, and four days after he revealed himself as the leaker, the news media is figuring out how the 29-year-old IT systems administrator managed his potentially huge data heist.
If you're concerned about national security, the new revelations will probably dismay you; if you appreciate leaking of government secrets, Snowden's technique is likely encouraging: Theft by thumb drive.
The NSA and other spy and military agencies have long known the dangers of the innocent-seeming portable USB flash drive. In October 2008, the NSA discovered that a thumb drive loaded with malware had infected the military's secure internal network. The Pentagon then (at least temporarily) banned the use of thumb drives — NSA commanders even reportedly ordered USB ports filled in with liquid cement.
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But "of course, there are always exceptions," especially for system administrators, a former NSA official tells the Los Angeles Times. "There are people who need to use a thumb drive and they have special permission. But when you use one, people always look at you funny."
That doesn't appear to have fazed Snowden. Not only do investigators know he pilfered the top secret files on a thumb drive, they "know how many documents he downloaded and what server he took them from," a U.S. official tells the Los Angeles Times. They don't know how he accessed those files, but as a system administrator, Snowden had broad access to key parts of the NSA network — and, says Ken Dilanian at the Los Angeles Times, "presumably a keen understanding of how those networks are monitored for unauthorized downloads."
In any case, Dilanian says, "confirmation of a thumb drive solved one of the central mysteries in the case: How Snowden, who worked for contracting giant Booz Allen Hamilton, physically removed classified material from a spy agency famous for strict security and ultra-secrecy."
Didn't Snowden's behavior, or his decision to take unpaid leave just a month after starting his job in Hawaii, arouse any suspicions? Sort of, says Mark Hosenball at Reuters. According to Hosenball's sources, Snowden's prolonged absence "prompted a hunt for the contractor, first by his employer Booz Allen Hamilton and then by the U.S. government." Hosenball continues:
Some people believe Snowden is exaggerating his skill level and knowledge, as he apparently inflated his salary and spying capabilities, but in interviews with colleagues, Snowden comes out looking pretty smart. He had a reputation as a very gifted "geek," a source tells Reuters. "This guy's really good with his fingers on the keyboard. He's really good."
His prowess with computer networks isn't a surprise, says John Herrman at BuzzFeed, now that we've discovered he's "a member of a growing and increasingly powerful alumni group: The internet people." For a few years, and more than 800 posts, Snowden was a frequent contributor to Ars Technica forums — the successor to Usenet and precursor of Reddit — making him "a part of the internet's relatively small but powerful creative nucleus."
Once he opened his mouth, Snowden outed himself not just as the leaker but as an internet person, says Herrman, and his forum persona "is instantly recognizable to anyone who spent time in a major forum in the early to mid-2000s."
A whole group of people out there are just like Snowden, says BuzzFeed's Herrman, and that should make the NSA, and any organization with secrets, a little nervous. Because when you move from how to why, the answer is a little unsettling, Herrman says: "This isn't about 'hacktivism' or some kind of unified cause. This is about the children of the internet coming of age."
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