Saturday, May 10, 2014

Snowden, China and cyber security

As I wrote about yesterday, I keep trying to convince myself that Edward Snowden was just a naive fool rather than something more sinister. But just as I'm about to get there, another troubling inconsistency in his story emerges.

Such was the case when I pondered the article in Vanity Fair a little bit more. To demonstrate, here's a bit of the timeline I pulled from it.

April 2012 - Snowden is working for Dell and is transferred to NSA’s Kunia Regional Security Operations Center in Hawaii. The article states:
Analysts at Kunia are said to focus on the electronic monitoring of China and North Korea.
Almost immediately, he began hacking the NSA's systems.
In today’s electronic bureaucracies, both government and corporate, a sysadmin [Snowden's job at the time] operates within fairly loose guidelines; like a motorcycle rider, he is free to roam far and wide, but only as long as he stays in his own lane. Later, after Snowden went public, N.S.A. experts studying his activities could see that, almost from his first weeks on the job, he had not only left his own lane but driven off the road entirely, zinging through open fields and peering into empty mansions. “He really went across policy lines and all kinds of things that he really shouldn’t have been able to get into as a sysadmin,” says William Binney.
December 2012 - Snowden first contacts Glenn Greenwald to begin the process of leaking documents. When Glenn didn't respond, he contacted Laura Poitras in February - who eventually got the two of them connected.

February 2013 - Snowden decides to leave his job with Dell and go to work for Booz Allen.
On the face of it he seemed to be trying to take a step up the intelligence ladder, shedding his job as a computer technician for actual espionage work; in fact, Snowden has indicated, he wanted access to more information he could download. Having passed on the N.S.A.’s job offer, he applied for and received a job at Booz Allen Hamilton, where he would move to the “cyber-security” side of the N.S.A., tracking and targeting threats to the country’s information infrastructure...“His job was to look at cyber-adversaries,” says Ledgett, “people who were exploiting U.S. communications or U.S. computer networks. And his job was to pursue them as targets and try to figure out what they were doing.”
Keep in mind that just three months prior, a Congressional report had stated unequivocally that China is the biggest threat when it comes to cyber security.
China is “the most threatening actor in cyberspace” as its intelligence agencies and hackers use increasingly sophisticated techniques to gain access to U.S. military computers and defense contractors, according to the draft of an annual report mandated by Congress...

A U.S. intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified matters, described as relentless China’s efforts to blind or disrupt U.S. intelligence and communications satellites, weapons targeting systems, and navigation computers.

The commission’s draft report bolsters warnings by U.S. officials that cyberattacks pose growing risks to the military and to critical industries such as electric utilities, pipelines, and telecommunications. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta cited Chinese and Russian capabilities in an Oct. 11 speech, saying cyber threats could become as devastating as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
So you can rest assured that if Snowden was tracking and targeting cyber security threats, he was likely focused on China.

May 2013 - Snowden leaves for Hong Kong. He arrived there on May 18/19 and we know nothing of his activities until Greenwald, Poitras and MacAskill arrive on June 1st. After being interviewed and filmed by these three, he goes into hiding again on June 10th and then leaves for Russia on the 23rd. That leaves 10 days prior to his meetings with the reporters and 12 days afterwards that either his location and/or activities in Hong Kong are unknown.

But here's the catch...if I was to ask you which stories from the Snowden cache have garnered the most attention in this country, it would undoubtably be the first two that were reported: (1) the FISA court order to Verizon on the metadata program, and (2) the PRISM program (the NSA collaboration with social networks like Microsoft, Google, etc.) However, the Verizon court order was signed on April 25, 2013 (posted online on April 29th) and the powerpoint slides outlining the PRISM program were from a presentation made in April 2013. So that means that Snowden couldn't have been in possession of those documents until almost 5 months AFTER he first contacted Greenwald (and just a couple of weeks before he fled to Hong Kong).

So the question becomes - what was he planning to leak when he first contacted Greenwald? All we know is that he was sure to have access to tons of material about China and cyber security threats - none of which has been released to the public. We also know that he fled first to Hong Kong - where his activities are unaccounted for over the course of 22 days - and then was granted asylum in Russia.

While everyone else is focusing either on privacy or the need to protect against terrorist threats, excuse me if I get concerned about what Snowden might have told China/Russia about our country's attempts to protect against cyber attacks. If that grants me access to the tin foil hat be it.


  1. Thanks for both of these posts on Snowden, Smartypants.

    However, being sinister and naive are not mutually exclusive. I have always suspected that Snowden had ulterior motives, especially after he started collaborating with Glenn Greenwald. However, it's clear to me that he's in over his head. Being sinister doesn't always mean you are smart or worldly.

    I, never, for a moment believed he was a genuine whistle-blower. I've always viewed him as a spy. And I'm even more convinced of that now than ever. His naivete comes in where he thought he (with Greenwald's help) could completely control the direction of his personal agenda. Wrong! Especially when someone like Vladimir Putin is your protector.

    1. One of the things this information made me realize is that Putin has been out in the open with his challenges to "the West" - particularly w/ his moves in Crimea and his support for Assad and Iran. But it just might be that the more sophisticated approach behind the scenes is being played by China.

  2. It was also more than coincidental that Snowden/Greenwald's leak that the U.S. was spying on China came on the eve of the U.S./China summit in Palm Springs. The leak definitely did damage to the U.S. for that summit.

    Former CIA officer & current CNN analyst and author, Bob Barr, believes that Snowden was already working for Putin. He said the pattern of the leaks followed the former KGB spying playbook.

  3. Correction, it's Robert Baer. Bob Barr is the fomer nutjob congressman from Georgia.

  4. I have never thought of Snowden as nothing more than a traitor. I don't believe that he did this all on his own. He had big money help. But time will tell of his true intentions.

  5. He never acted like a whistle-blower. He's a spy. And if that means I join you in the tin-hat parlor, well, aluminum looks good on me.

  6. Add me to the list. This story has been fishy to me since the first day. And I don't believe he and Greenwald and Co are doing this alone and I believe the intent was and is to undermine the US Government. It will be interesting to see their next moves when PBO is out of office. I sense the urgency and outrage will morph into something else.

  7. Snowden has always struck me as someone who has a problem with reality. His self-image doesn't - and didn't - match up with objective reality. His portraying himself as a technical wizard isn't backed up by his educational achievements, or his work record. In fact, his "hacking" consisted of tricking co-workers into giving him passwords so he could copy files. A lot of his story smelled like long-dead fish right off the bat, to those of us who do have some knowledge of computers.

    For me, what was another scandal was that he was able to slide through to a top security clearance that he never should have been given, due to the number of "red flags" in his past. Things like lying about his education, for example.

    I don't know if he was working for Russian intelligence at the time, but the point is now moot. Any fig leaf about "letting the people know about NSA spying on US citizens" disappeared rather quickly when he started releasing information about methods and means of monitoring those we should expect the NSA to be monitoring. Anyone who thinks the Russians (and the Chinese) don't have copies of everything he had is ... hopelessly naive.


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