Friday, August 2, 2013

Edward Snowden’s NSA Leaks: Could These Seismic Shocks Have Been Prevented?

Ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden is now on Russian soil, leaving the Moscow airport transit lounge with 12 secure months of asylum from Russia tucked under his arm and a pending job offer at VKontakte, Russia’s biggest social networking site, in his pocket.

Wow. And all of that presumably without a series of grueling face-to-face interviews from his new employer. In addition, Glenn Greenwald, the reporter at The Guardian who broke Snowden’s revelations, has landed a nice book deal -- plus, perhaps, an extended contract at his newspaper, which hasn’t had this much publicity since the 1963 Profumo political scandal.

The rest of us should be so lucky.

A part of me wants to turn this tragi-comedy fairy tale into a cyber-age spy thriller, with Snowden as an undercover U.S. CIA agent carrying out a top-secret assignment to get inside Russia’s cyber security apparatus and save civilized society from World War III.

But let’s get back to reality: How did the rest of America fare from Snowden’s disclosure of U.S. intelligence electronic data gathering methods?

Not so well.

This is a long list, but here are my candidates for the top three results in terms of impact on a Richter Scale:

  • Increased alarm among U.S. citizens: At a time when the IRS blatantly (and non-apologetically) targets U.S. citizens with harassing and punitive actions, the last thing Americans need is another revelation of big government gone wild. But with the NSA revelations of 'enhanced electronic surveillance,' they’ve certainly got one.
  • Distrust increases among U.S. allies: Nothing chills discussions with the U.S. ambassador quite like learning your so-called ally is gathering sensitive information about your country and citizens.
  • A big blow to U.S.-Soviet relations: Russia’s asylum for Snowden defies and embarrasses the Obama administration, further complicating already strained relations between the two powers. According to the Wall Street Journal, Snowden’s asylum “threatens to scale back diplomatic relations between the two countries” and may derail a planned Obama-Putin summit in Russia next month.

These are seismic global impacts that will affect U.S. relations with its citizens and other nations for years to come. And according to reporter Greenwald, more Snowden revelations – carrying presumably more damage – are yet to come.

Should the stolen information that allowed these disclosures resulting in such seismic shocks have happened at all?

There are procedures to stop this type of top-secret theft, such as a two-man rule for downloading top-secret data (the NSA, evidently sufficiently awakened, is now testing such a security method). Sophisticated software-monitoring systems can also signal when out-of-the ordinary data harvesting is taking place, so the identified employee’s actions can be examined more closely.

Either of these security methods would have stopped Snowden before he set foot outside the NSA building on his way to the Honolulu airport. Were either in effect? Evidently not. Snowden is to blame, but the NSA is to blame right up there with him.

The irony here is not that Snowden is escaping U.S. punishment - for now - courtesy of another major world power; it's that the NSA is somehow escaping culpability for its incomprehensibly lax security processes.

Could these seismic shocks have been avoided? Absolutely.


(Edward Snowden image by Laura Poitras / Praxis Films [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

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