How Edward Snowden stole his cache of NSA secrets

The NSA leaker reportedly just walked out of work with some of America's big secrets on a thumb drive in his pocket

Snowden didn't seem to have to work very hard to grab top secret classified government info.
(Image credit: REUTERS/Bobby Yip)

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.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

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:

[Snowden] was only on the job for around four weeks when he told his employers he was ill and requested leave without pay, the sources said. When Booz Allen checked in with him, Snowden said he was suffering from epilepsy and needed more time off. When he failed to return after a longer period, and the company could not find him, it notified intelligence officials because of Snowden's high-level security clearance, one of the sources said.

Government agents spent several days in the field trying to find Snowden, according to the source, but they were unable to do so before the first news story based on Snowden's revelations appeared in The Guardian and then in The Washington Post. The government did not know Snowden was the source for the stories until he admitted it on Sunday, the sources said. [Reuters]

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."

He's a bit of a know-it-all, a bit of a troll, opinionated about both subjects he knows well and ones he doesn't. He unsubtly references his sex life, his security clearance, and his mysterious work. He was not shy about giving advice, which is probably the defining trait of the forum power user....

Most of the people he used to interact with are long gone — like Snowden, they grew up, and receded back into the real world. But he took with him the set of values he either learned or became comfortable expressing online: A keen interest in rights and speech, particularly where they concern the internet and privacy, suspicion of government and authority, a belief in both free markets and free-flowing information, and a set of cultural and aesthetic values that both set him apart from the mainstream and endear him to his people — the internet people. [BuzzFeed]

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."

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.