Reflections On Ten Years Past The Snowden Revelations

In 2013 and 2014, I wrote extensively about new revelations regarding
NSA surveillance based on the documents provided by Edward
Snowden. But I had a more personal involvement as well.

I wrote the essay below in September 2013. The New Yorker agreed to
publish it, but the Guardian asked me not to. It was
scared of UK law enforcement, and worried that this essay would
reflect badly on it. And given that the UK police would raid its
offices in July 2014, it had legitimate cause to be worried.

Now, ten years later, I offer this as a time capsule of what those
early months of Snowden were like.


It’s a surreal experience, paging through hundreds of top-secret NSA
documents. You’re peering into a forbidden world: strange, confusing,
and fascinating all at the same time.

I had flown down to Rio de Janeiro in late August at the request of
Glenn Greenwald. He had been working on the Edward Snowden archive for
a couple of months, and had a pile of more technical documents that he
wanted help interpreting. According to Greenwald, Snowden also thought
that bringing me down was a good idea.

It made sense. I didn’t know either of them, but I have been writing
about cryptography, security, and privacy for decades. I could
decipher some of the technical language that Greenwald had difficulty
with, and understand the context and importance of various
document. And I have long been publicly critical of the NSA’s
eavesdropping capabilities. My knowledge and expertise could help
figure out which stories needed to be reported.

I thought about it a lot before agreeing. This was before David
Miranda, Greenwald’s partner, was detained at Heathrow airport by the
UK authorities; but even without that, I knew there was a risk. I fly
a lot—a quarter of a million miles per year—and being put on a TSA
list, or being detained at the US border and having my electronics
seized, would be a major problem. So would the FBI breaking into my
home and seizing my personal electronics. But in the end, that made me
more determined to do it.

I did spend some time on the phone with the attorneys recommended to
me by the ACLU and the EFF. And I talked about it with my partner,
especially when Miranda was detained three days before my departure.
Both Greenwald and his employer, the Guardian, are careful about whom
they show the documents to. They publish only those portions essential
to getting the story out. It was important to them that I be a
co-author, not a source. I didn’t follow the legal reasoning, but the
point is that the Guardian doesn’t want to leak the documents to
random people. It will, however, write stories in the public interest,
and I would be allowed to review the documents as part of that
process. So after a Skype conversation with someone at the Guardian, I
signed a letter of engagement.

And then I flew to Brazil.

I saw only a tiny slice of the documents, and most of what I saw was
surprisingly banal. The concerns of the top-secret world are largely
tactical: system upgrades, operational problems owing to weather,
delays because of work backlogs, and so on. I paged through weekly
reports, presentation slides from status meetings, and general
briefings to educate visitors. Management is management, even inside
the NSA Reading the documents, I felt as though I were sitting through
some of those endless meetings.

The meeting presenters try to spice things up. Presentations regularly
include intelligence success stories. There were details—what had been
found, and how, and where it helped—and sometimes there were attaboys
from “customers” who used the intelligence. I’m sure these are
intended to remind NSA employees that they’re doing good. It
definitely had an effect on me. Those were all things I want the NSA
to be doing.

There were so many code names. Everything has one: every program,
every piece of equipment, every piece of software. Sometimes code
names had their own code names. The biggest secrets seem to be the
underlying real-world information: which particular company
MONEYROCKET is; what software vulnerability EGOTISTICALGIRAFFE—really,
I am not making that one up—is; how TURBINE works. Those secrets
collectively have a code name—ECI, for exceptionally compartmented
information—and almost never appear in the documents. Chatting with
Snowden on an encrypted IM connection, I joked that the NSA cafeteria
menu probably has code names for menu items. His response: “Trust me
when I say you have no idea.”

Those code names all come with logos, most of them amateurish and a
lot of them dumb. Note to the NSA: take some of that more than
ten-billion-dollar annual budget and hire yourself a design
firm. Really; it’ll pay off in morale.

Once in a while, though, I would see something that made me stop,
stand up, and pace around in circles. It wasn’t that what I read was
particularly exciting, or important. It was just that it was
startling. It changed—ever so slightly—how I thought about the world.

Greenwald said that that reaction was normal when people started
reading through the documents.

Intelligence professionals talk about how disorienting it is living on
the inside. You read so much classified information about the world’s
geopolitical events that you start seeing the world differently. You
become convinced that only the insiders know what’s really going on,
because the news media is so often wrong. Your family is
ignorant. Your friends are ignorant. The world is ignorant. The only
thing keeping you from ignorance is that constant stream of classified
knowledge. It’s hard not to feel superior, not to say things like “If
you only knew what we know” all the time. I can understand how General
Keith Alexander, the director of the NSA, comes across as so
supercilious; I only saw a minute fraction of that secret world, and I
started feeling it.

It turned out to be a terrible week to visit Greenwald, as he was
still dealing with the fallout from Miranda’s detention. Two other
journalists, one from the Nation and the other from the Hindu, were
also in town working with him. A lot of my week involved Greenwald
rushing into my hotel room, giving me a thumb drive of new stuff to
look through, and rushing out again. I did get to “meet” Snowden over
secure chat.

A technician from the Guardian got a search capability working while I
was there, and I spent some time with it. Question: when you’re given
the capability to search through a database of NSA secrets, what’s the
first thing you look for? Answer: your name.

It wasn’t there. Neither were any of the algorithm names I knew, not
even algorithms I knew that the US government used.

I tried to talk to Greenwald about his own operational security. It
had been incredibly stupid for Miranda to be traveling with NSA
documents on the thumb drive. Transferring files electronically is
what encryption is for. I told Greenwald that he and Laura Poitras
should be sending large encrypted files of dummy documents back and
forth every day.

Once, at Greenwald’s home, I walked into the backyard and looked for
TEMPEST receivers hiding in the trees. I didn’t find any, but that
doesn’t mean they weren’t there. Greenwald has a lot of dogs, but I
don’t think that would hinder professionals. I’m sure that a bunch of
major governments have a complete copy of everything Greenwald
has. Maybe the black bag teams bumped into each other in those early

I started doubting my own security procedures. Reading about the NSA’s
hacking abilities will do that to you. Can it break the encryption on
my hard drive? Probably not. Has the company that makes my encryption
software deliberately weakened the implementation for it?
Probably. Are NSA agents listening in on my calls back to the US? Very
probably. Could agents take control of my computer over the Internet
if they wanted to? Definitely. In the end, I decided to do my best and
stop worrying about it. It was the agency’s documents, after all. And
what I was working on would become public in a few weeks.

I wasn’t sleeping well, either. A lot of it was the sheer magnitude of
what I saw. It’s not that any of it was a real surprise. Those of us
in the information security community had long assumed that the NSA
was doing things like this. But we never really sat down and figured
out the details, and to have the details confirmed made a big
difference. Maybe I can make it clearer with an analogy. Everyone
knows that death is inevitable; there’s absolutely no surprise about
that. Yet it arrives as a surprise, because we spend most of our lives
refusing to think about it. The NSA documents were a bit like
that. Knowing that it is surely true that the NSA is eavesdropping on
the world, and doing it in such a methodical and robust manner, is
very different from coming face-to-face with the reality that it is
and the details of how it is doing it.

I also found it incredibly difficult to keep the secrets. The
Guardian’s process is slow and methodical. I move much faster. I
drafted stories based on what I found. Then I wrote essays about those
stories, and essays about the essays. Writing was therapy; I would
wake up in the wee hours of the morning, and write an essay. But that
put me at least three levels beyond what was published.

Now that my involvement is out, and my first essays are out, I feel a
lot better. I’m sure it will get worse again when I find another
monumental revelation; there are still more documents to go through.

I’ve heard it said that Snowden wants to damage America. I can say
with certainty that he does not. So far, everyone involved in this
incident has been incredibly careful about what is released to the
public. There are many documents that could be immensely harmful to
the US, and no one has any intention of releasing them. The documents
the reporters release are carefully redacted. Greenwald and I
repeatedly debated with Guardian editors the newsworthiness of story
ideas, stressing that we would not expose government secrets simply
because they’re interesting.

The NSA got incredibly lucky; this could have ended with a massive
public dump like Chelsea Manning’s State Department cables. I suppose
it still could. Despite that, I can imagine how this feels to the NSA
It’s used to keeping this stuff behind multiple levels of security:
gates with alarms, armed guards, safe doors, and military-grade
cryptography. It’s not supposed to be on a bunch of thumb drives in
Brazil, Germany, the UK, the US, and who knows where else, protected
largely by some random people’s opinions about what should or should
not remain secret. This is easily the greatest intelligence failure in
the history of ever. It’s amazing that one person could have had so
much access with so little accountability, and could sneak all of this
data out without raising any alarms. The odds are close to zero that
Snowden is the first person to do this; he’s just the first person to
make public that he did. It’s a testament to General Alexander’s power
that he hasn’t been forced to resign.

It’s not that we weren’t being careful about security, it’s that our
standards of care are so different. From the NSA’s point of view,
we’re all major security risks, myself included. I was taking notes
about classified material, crumpling them up, and throwing them into
the wastebasket. I was printing documents marked “TOP
SECRET/COMINT/NOFORN” in a hotel lobby. And once, I took the wrong
thumb drive with me to dinner, accidentally leaving the unencrypted
one filled with top-secret documents in my hotel room. It was an
honest mistake; they were both blue.

If I were an NSA employee, the policy would be to fire me for that alone.

Many have written about how being under constant surveillance changes
a person. When you know you’re being watched, you censor yourself. You
become less open, less spontaneous. You look at what you write on your
computer and dwell on what you’ve said on the telephone, wonder how it
would sound taken out of context, from the perspective of a
hypothetical observer. You’re more likely to conform. You suppress
your individuality. Even though I have worked in privacy for decades,
and already knew a lot about the NSA and what it does, the change was
palpable. That feeling hasn’t faded. I am now more careful about what
I say and write. I am less trusting of communications technology. I am
less trusting of the computer industry.

After much discussion, Greenwald and I agreed to write three stories
together to start. All of those are still in progress. In addition, I
wrote two commentaries on the Snowden documents that were recently
made public. There’s a lot more to come; even Greenwald hasn’t looked
through everything.

Since my trip to Brazil [one month before], I’ve flown back to the US
once and domestically seven times—all without incident. I’m not on any
list yet. At least, none that I know about.


As it happened, I didn’t write much more with Greenwald or the
Guardian. Those two had a falling out, and by the time everything
settled and both began writing about the documents
independently—Greenwald at the newly formed website the Intercept—I
got cut out of the process somehow. I remember hearing that Greenwald
was annoyed with me, but I never learned the reason. We haven’t spoken

Still, I was happy with the one story I was part of: how the NSA hacks
Tor. I consider it a personal success that I pushed the Guardian to
publish NSA documents detailing QUANTUM. I don’t think that would have
gotten out any other way. And I still use those pages today when I
teach cybersecurity to policymakers at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Other people wrote about the Snowden files, and wrote a lot. It was a
slow trickle at first, and then a more consistent flow. Between
Greenwald, Bart Gellman, and the Guardian reporters, there ended up
being steady stream of news. (Bart brought in Ashkan Soltani to help
him with the technical aspects, which was a great move on his part,
even if it cost Ashkan a government job later.) More stories were
covered by other publications.

It started getting weird. Both Greenwald and Gellman held documents
back so they could publish them in their books. Jake Appelbaum, who
had not yet been accused of sexual assault by multiple women, was
working with Laura Poitras. He partnered with Spiegel to release an
implant catalog from the NSA’s Tailored Access Operations group. To
this day, I am convinced that that document was not in the Snowden
archives: that Jake got it somehow, and it was released under the
cover of Edward Snowden. I thought it was important enough that I
started writing about each item in that document in my blog: ”NSA
Exploit of the Week.” That got my website blocked by the DoD: I keep a
framed print of the censor’s message on my wall.

Perhaps the most surreal document disclosures were when artists
started writing fiction based on the documents. This was in 2016, when
the Intercept finally built a secure room in New York to house the
documents. By then, the documents were years out of date, and now
they’re over a decade out of date. (They were leaked in 2013, but most
of them were from 2012 or before.)

I ended up being something of a public ambassador for the
documents. When I got back from Rio, I gave talks at a private
conference in Woods Hole, the Berkman Center at Harvard, something
called the Congress and Privacy and Surveillance in Geneva, events at
both CATO and New America in DC, an event at the University of
Pennsylvania, an event at EPIC and a “Stop Watching Us” rally in DC,
the RISCS conference in London, the ISF in Paris, and…then…at the
IETF meeting in Vancouver in November 2013. (I remember little of
this; I am reconstructing it all from my calendar.)

What struck me at the IETF was the indignation in the room, and the
calls to action. And there was action, across many fronts. We
technologists did a lot to help secure the Internet, for example.

The government didn’t do its part, though. Despite the public outcry,
investigations by Congress, pronouncements by President Obama, and
federal court rulings. I don’t think much has changed. The NSA
canceled a program here and a program there, and it is now more public
about defense. But I don’t think it is any less aggressive about
either bulk or targeted surveillance. Certainly its government
authorities haven’t been restricted in any way. And surveillance
capitalism is still the business model of the Internet.

And Edward Snowden? We were in contact for a while on Signal. I
visited him once in Moscow, in 2016. And I had him do an annual guest
lecture to my class at Harvard for a few years, remotely by
Jitsi. Afterwards, I would hold a session where I promised to answer
every question he would evade or not answer, explain every response he
did give, and be candid in a way that someone with an outstanding
arrest warrant simply cannot. Sometimes I thought I could channel
Snowden better than he could.

But now it’s been a decade. Everything he knows is old and out of
date. Everything we know is old and out of date. The NSA suffered an
even worse leak of its secrets by the Russians, under the guise of the
Shadow Brokers, in 2016 and 2017. The NSA has rebuilt. It again has
capabilities we can only surmise.