Many in the media have conjectured that supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were responsible for a series of Internet outages in Syria in 2012. But National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden asserts at least one was caused by the U.S. government.
Snowden went public with this claim for the first time in a recent interview with another NSA whistleblower, James Bamford, published today in Wired Magazine. Snowden’s basis for this claim seems more flimsy than past revelations (it doesn’t seem like he has documents to back it up), and it is based on the word of one source. At first glance the assertion seemed to be fantastical, but so have other Snowden claims before they were confirmed.
By the time he went to work for Booz Allen in the spring of 2013, Snowden was thoroughly disillusioned, yet he had not lost his capacity for shock. One day an intelligence officer told him that TAO—a division of NSA hackers—had attempted in 2012 to remotely install an exploit in one of the core routers at a major Internet service provider in Syria, which was in the midst of a prolonged civil war. This would have given the NSA access to email and other Internet traffic from much of the country. But something went wrong, and the router was bricked instead—rendered totally inoperable. The failure of this router caused Syria to suddenly lose all connection to the Internet—although the public didn’t know that the US government was responsible
The Wired interview gave an unprecedented perspective into why Snowden decided to steal a trove of documents from the NSA and disperse them to journalists in 2013. Following the Syria revelation, Snowden discovered a quick, automated system that responds to cyberthreats, known as MonsterMind. The program also was first disclosed in the Wired interview.
The system’s automated nature is dangerous, according to Snowden, who said that cyber attacks can be “spoofed,” implying that an automatic response could hit the wrong target. According to the interview, Snowden “views MonsterMind as the ultimate threat to privacy” due to its need to acquire huge amounts of communications data.
Snowden points out that to analyze “all traffic flows,” you have to “[intercept] all traffic flows.” Such an effort would violate the Fourth Amendment, according to Snowden, as the government would be “seizing private communications without a warrant, without probable cause or even a suspicion of wrongdoing.”
Much of the Wired profile focuses on details and anecdotes already publicized about Snowden’s personal history and movements since he came forward as the NSA leaker last summer. But in a fresh anecdote about Snowden’s time with the NSA, Wired reported Snowden became completely disillusioned with the spy agency when former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper asserted to a senate committee that the NSA does not collect information on millions of Americans, or that it didn’t do so “wittingly.”
“[C]an you believe this shit?” Snowden said he asked his coworkers.
Considering all we have learned about the actions of the intelligence community since the first story was published last June, it’s somewhat stunning to consider that the Snowden saga is just over 14 months old. For now Snowden appears to be mostly secure. He was recently granted legal status for a three-year stay in Russia, so he likely doesn’t face short-term expulsion. But that doesn’t shield him from digital threats. As he told Wired: “I’m going to slip up and they’re going to hack me. It’s going to happen.”
With the documents no longer in his possession, what a government might be able to access would be limited, but still interesting to various parties.
Update: Due to an issue with our Content Management System, the post initially was published without links. We have updated the post to include links. We apologize for the mistake, and certainly did not intend to not link to Wired.