Authors: Edward Snowden
“At the CIA,” he said, “we fundamentally try to collect everything and hang on to it forever.” As if that wasn’t clear enough, he went on: “It is nearly within our grasp to compute on
human generated information.” The underline was Gus’s own. He was reading from his slide deck, ugly words in an ugly font illustrated with the government’s signature four-color clip art.
There were a few journalists in the crowd, apparently, though it seemed as if almost all of them were from specialty tech-government publications like
Federal Computer Week.
It was telling that Gus stuck around for a Q & A toward the conclusion of his presentation. Rather, it wasn’t quite a Q & A, but more like an auxiliary presentation, offered directly to the journalists. He must have been trying to get something off his chest, and it wasn’t just his clown tie.
Gus told the journalists that the agency could track their smartphones, even when they were turned off—that the agency could surveil every single one of their communications. Remember: this was a crowd of domestic journalists. American journalists. And the way that Gus said “could” came off as “has,” “does,” and “will.” He perorated in a distinctly disturbed, and disturbing, manner, at least for a CIA high priest: “Technology is moving faster than government or law can keep up. It’s moving faster … than you can keep up: you should be asking the question of what are your rights and who owns your data.” I was floored—anybody more junior
than Gus who had given a presentation like this would’ve been wearing orange by the end of the day.
Coverage of Gus’s confession ran only in the
. But the performance itself lived on at YouTube, where it still remains, at least at the time of this writing six years later. The last time I checked, it had 313 views—a dozen of them mine.
The lesson I took from this was that for my disclosures to be effective, I had to do more than just hand some journalists some documents—more, even, than help them interpret the documents. I had to become their partner, to provide the technological training and tools to help them do their reporting accurately and safely. Taking this course of action would mean giving myself over totally to one of the capital crimes of intelligence work: whereas other spies have committed espionage, sedition, and treason, I would be aiding and abetting an act of journalism. The perverse fact is that legally, those crimes are virtually synonymous. American law makes no distinction between providing classified information to the press in the public interest and providing it, even selling it, to the enemy. The only opinion I’ve ever found to contradict this came from my first indoctrination into the IC: there, I was told that it was in fact slightly better to offer secrets for sale to the enemy than to offer them for free to a domestic reporter. A reporter will tell the public, whereas an enemy is unlikely to share its prize even with its allies.
Given the risks I was taking, I needed to identify people I could trust who were also trusted by the public. I needed reporters who were diligent yet discreet, independent yet reliable. They would need to be strong enough to challenge me on the distinctions between what I suspected and what the evidence proved, and to challenge the government when it falsely accused their work of endangering lives. Above all, I had to be sure that whoever I picked wouldn’t ultimately cave to power when put under pressure that was certain to be like nothing they, or I, had ever experienced before.
I cast my net not so widely as to imperil the mission, but widely enough to avoid a single point of failure—the
New York Times
problem. One journalist, one publication, even one country of publication wouldn’t be enough, because the US government had already demonstrated its willingness to stifle such reporting. Ideally, I’d give each journalist their own set of documents simultaneously, leaving me with none. This would shift the focus of scrutiny to them, and ensure that even if I were arrested the truth would still get out.
As I narrowed down my list of potential partners, I realized I’d been going about this all wrong, or just wastefully. Instead of trying to select the journalists on my own, I should have been letting the system that I was trying to expose select them for me. My best partners, I decided, would be journalists whom the national security state had already targeted.
Laura Poitras I knew as a documentarian, primarily concerned with America’s post-9/11 foreign policy. Her film
My Country, My Country
depicted the 2005 Iraqi national elections that were conducted under (and frustrated by) the US occupation. She had also made
, about the NSA cryptanalyst William Binney—who had raised objections through proper channels about TRAILBLAZER, the predecessor of STELLARWIND, only to be accused of leaking classified information, subjected to repeated harassment, and arrested at gunpoint in his home, though never charged. Laura herself had been frequently harassed by the government because of her work, repeatedly detained and interrogated by border agents whenever she traveled in or out of the country.
Glenn Greenwald I knew as a civil liberties lawyer turned columnist, initially for
—where he was one of the few who wrote about the unclassified version of the NSA IG’s Report back in 2009—and later for the US edition of the
. I liked him because he was skeptical and argumentative, the kind of man who’d fight with the devil, and when the devil wasn’t around fight with himself. Though Ewen MacAskill, of the British edition of
, and Bart Gellman of the
would later prove stalwart partners (and patient guides to the journalistic wilderness), I found my earliest affinity with Laura and Glenn, perhaps because they weren’t merely interested in reporting on the IC but had personal stakes in understanding the institution.
The only hitch was getting in touch.
Unable to reveal my true name, I contacted the journalists under a variety of identities, disposable masks worn for a time and then discarded. The first of these was “Cincinnatus,” after the legendary farmer who became a Roman consul and then voluntarily relinquished his power. That was followed by “Citizenfour,” a handle that some journalists took to mean that I considered myself the fourth dissident-employee in the NSA’s recent history, after Binney and his fellow TRAILBLAZER whistleblowers J. Kirk Wiebe and Ed Loomis—though the triumvirate I actually had in mind consisted of Thomas Drake, who disclosed the existence of TRAILBLAZER to journalists, and Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo, whose disclosure of
The Pentagon Papers
helped expose the deceptions of the Vietnam War and bring it to an end. The final name I chose for my correspondence was “Verax,” Latin for “speaker of truth,” in the hopes of proposing an alternative to the model of a hacker called “Mendax” (“speaker of lies”)—the pseudonym of the young man who’d grow up to become WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange.
You can’t really appreciate how hard it is to stay anonymous online until you’ve tried to operate as if your life depended on it. Most of the communications systems set up in the IC have a single basic aim: the observer of a communication must not be able to discern the identities of those involved, or in any way attribute them to an agency. This is why the IC calls these exchanges “non-attributable.” The pre-Internet spycraft of anonymity is famous, mostly from TV and the movies: a safe-house address coded in bathroom-stall graffiti, for instance, or scrambled into the abbreviations of a classified ad. Or think of the Cold War’s
“dead drops,” the chalk marks on mailboxes signaling that a secret package was waiting inside a particular hollowed-out tree in a public park. The modern version might be fake profiles trading fake chats on a dating site, or, more commonly, just a superficially innocuous app that leaves superficially innocuous messages on a superficially innocuous Amazon server secretly controlled by the CIA. What I wanted, however, was something even better than that—something that required none of that exposure, and none of that budget.
I decided to use somebody else’s Internet connection. I wish that were simply a matter of going to a McDonald’s or Starbucks and signing on to their Wi-Fi. But those places have CCTV, and receipts, and other people—memories with legs. Moreover, every wireless device, from a phone to a laptop, has a globally unique identifier called a MAC (Machine Address Code), which it leaves on record with every access point it connects to—a forensic marker of its user’s movements.
So I didn’t go to McDonald’s or Starbucks—I went driving. Specifically, I went war-driving, which is when you convert your car into a roving Wi-Fi sensor. For this you need a laptop, a high-powered antenna, and a magnetic GPS sensor, which can be slapped atop the roof. Power is provided by the car or by a portable battery, or else by the laptop itself. Everything you need can fit into a backpack.
I took along a cheap laptop running TAILS, which is a Linux-based “amnesiac” operating system—meaning it forgets everything when you turn it off, and starts fresh when you boot it up again, with no logs or memory traces of anything ever done on it. TAILS allowed me to easily “spoof,” or disguise, the laptop’s MAC: whenever it connected to a network it left behind the record of some other machine, in no way associable with mine. Usefully enough, TAILS also had built-in support for connecting to the anonymizing Tor network.
At nights and on weekends, I drove around what seemed like
the entire island of Oahu, letting my antenna pick up the pulses of each Wi-Fi network. My GPS sensor tagged each access point with the location at which it was noticed, thanks to a mapping program I used called Kismet. What resulted was a map of the invisible networks we pass by every day without even noticing, a scandalously high percentage of which had either no security at all or security I could trivially bypass. Some of the networks required more sophisticated hacking. I’d briefly jam a network, causing its legitimate users to be booted off-line; in their attempt to reconnect, they’d automatically rebroadcast their “authentication packets,” which I could intercept and effectively decipher into passwords that would let me log on just like any other “authorized” user.
With this network map in hand, I’d drive around Oahu like a madman, trying to check my email to see which of the journalists had replied to me. Having made contact with Laura Poitras, I’d spend much of the evening writing to her—sitting behind the wheel of my car at the beach, filching the Wi-Fi from a nearby resort. Some of the journalists I’d chosen needed convincing to use encrypted email, which back in 2012 was a pain. In some cases, I had to show them how, so I’d upload tutorials—sitting in my idling car in a parking lot, availing myself of the network of a library. Or of a school. Or of a gas station. Or of a bank—which had horrifyingly poor protections. The point was to not create any patterns.
Atop the parking garage of a mall, secure in the knowledge that the moment I closed the lid of my laptop, my secret was safe, I’d draft manifestos explaining why I’d gone public, but then delete them. And then I’d try writing emails to Lindsay, only to delete them, too. I just couldn’t find the words.
Read, Write, Execute: in computing, these are called permissions. Functionally speaking, they determine the extent of your authority within a computer or computer network, defining what exactly you can and cannot do. The right to
a file allows you to access its contents, while the right to
a file allows you to modify it.
, meanwhile, means that you have the ability to run a file or program, to carry out the actions it was designed to do.
Read, Write, Execute: this was my simple three-step plan. I wanted to burrow into the heart of the world’s most secure network to find the truth, make a copy of it, and get it out into the world. And I had to do all this without getting caught—without being read, written, and executed myself.
Almost everything you do on a computer, on any device, leaves a record. Nowhere is this more true than at the NSA. Each log-in and log-out creates a log entry. Each permission I used left its own forensic trace. Every time I opened a file, every time I copied a file, that action was recorded. Every time I downloaded, moved, or deleted a file, that was recorded, too, and security logs were updated
to reflect the event. There were network flow records, public key infrastructure records—people even joked about cameras hidden in the bathrooms, in the bathroom stalls. The agency had a not inconsiderable number of counterintelligence programs spying on the people who were spying on people, and if even one caught me doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing, it wouldn’t be a file that was getting deleted.
Luckily, the strength of these systems was also their weakness: their complexity meant that not even the people running them necessarily knew how they worked. Nobody actually understood where they overlapped and where their gaps were. Nobody, that is, except the systems administrators. After all, those sophisticated monitoring systems you’re imagining, the ones with scary names like MIDNIGHTRIDER—somebody’s got to install them in the first place. The NSA may have paid for the network, but sysadmins like myself were the ones who really owned it.
The Read phase would involve dancing through the digital grid of tripwires laid across the routes connecting the NSA to every other intelligence agency, domestic and foreign. (Among these was the NSA’s UK partner, the Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, which was setting up dragnets like OPTICNERVE, a program that saved a snapshot every five minutes from the cameras of people video-chatting on platforms like Yahoo Messenger, and PHOTONTORPEDO, which grabbed the IP addresses of MSN Messenger users.) By using Heartbeat to bring in the documents I wanted, I could turn “bulk collection” against those who’d turned it against the public, effectively Frankensteining the IC. The agency’s security tools kept track of who read what, but it didn’t matter: anyone who bothered to check their logs was used to seeing Heartbeat by now. It would sound no alarms. It was the perfect cover.
But while Heartbeat would work as a way of collecting the files—far too many files—it only brought them to the server in Hawaii, a server that kept logs even I couldn’t get around. I needed a way to work with the files, search them, and discard the irrelevant
and uninteresting, along with those containing legitimate secrets that I wouldn’t be giving to journalists. At this point, still in my Read phase, the hazards were manifold, due mainly to the fact that the protocols I was up against were no longer geared to monitoring but to prevention. If I ran my searches on the Heartbeat server, it would light a massive electronic sign blinking
I thought about this for a while. I couldn’t just copy the files directly from the Heartbeat server onto a personal storage device and waltz out of the Tunnel without being caught. What I could do, though, was bring the files closer, directing them to an intermediate way station.
I couldn’t send them to one of our regular computers, because by 2012 all of the Tunnel had been upgraded to new “thin client” machines: small helpless computers with crippled drives and CPUs that couldn’t store or process data on their own, but did all of their storage and processing on the cloud. In a forgotten corner of the office, however, there was a pyramid of disused desktop computers—old, moldering legacy machines the agency had wiped clean and discarded. When I say old here, I mean young by the standards of anyone who doesn’t live on a budget the size of the NSA’s. They were Dell PCs from as recently as 2009 or 2010, large gray rectangles of comforting weight, which could store and process data on their own without being connected to the cloud. What I liked about them was that though they were still in the NSA system, they couldn’t really be closely tracked as long as I kept them off the central networks.
I could easily justify needing to use these stolid, reliable boxes by claiming that I was trying to make sure Heartbeat worked with older operating systems. After all, not everybody at every NSA site had one of the new “thin clients” just yet. And what if Dell wanted to implement a civilian version of Heartbeat? Or what if the CIA, or FBI, or some similarly backward organization wanted to use it? Under the guise of compatibility testing, I could transfer the files to these old computers, where I could search, filter, and organize them as much as I wanted, as long as I was careful. I was carrying
one of the big old hulks back to my desk when I passed one of the IT directors, who stopped me and asked me what I needed it for—he’d been a major proponent of getting rid of them. “Stealing secrets,” I answered, and we laughed.
The Read phase ended with the files I wanted all neatly organized into folders. But they were still on a computer that wasn’t mine, which was still in the Tunnel underground. Enter, then, the Write phase, which for my purposes meant the agonizingly slow, boring-but-also-cripplingly-scary process of copying the files from the legacy Dells something that I could spirit out of the building.
The easiest and safest way to copy a file off any IC workstation is also the oldest: a camera. Smartphones, of course, are banned in NSA buildings, but workers accidentally bring them in all the time without anyone noticing. They leave them in their gym bags or in the pockets of their windbreakers. If they’re caught with one in a random search and they act goofily abashed instead of screaming panicked Mandarin into their wristwatch, they’re often merely warned, especially if it’s their first offense. But getting a smartphone loaded with NSA secrets out of the Tunnel is a riskier gambit. Odds are that nobody would’ve noticed—or cared—if I walked out with a smartphone, and it might have been an adequate tool for a staffer trying to copy a single torture report, but I wasn’t wild about the idea of taking thousands of pictures of my computer screen in the middle of a top secret facility. Also, the phone would have had to be configured in such a way that even the world’s foremost forensic experts could seize and search it without finding anything on it that they shouldn’t.
I’m going to refrain from publishing how exactly I went about my own writing—my own copying and encryption—so that the NSA will still be standing tomorrow. I will mention, however, what storage technology I used for the copied files. Forget thumbdrives; they’re too bulky for the relatively small amount they store. I went, instead, for SD cards—the acronym stands for Secure Digital. Actually, I went for the mini- and micro-SD cards.
You’ll recognize SD cards if you’ve ever used a digital camera
or video camera, or needed more storage on a tablet. They’re tiny little buggers, miracles of nonvolatile flash storage, and—at 20 x 21.5 mm for the mini, 15 x 11 mm for the micro, basically the size of your pinkie fingernail—eminently concealable. You can fit one inside the pried-off square of a Rubik’s Cube, then stick the square back on, and nobody will notice. In other attempts I carried a card in my sock, or, at my most paranoid, in my cheek, so I could swallow it if I had to. Eventually, as I gained confidence, and certainty in my methods of encryption, I’d just keep a card at the bottom of my pocket. They hardly ever triggered metal detectors, and who wouldn’t believe I’d simply forgotten something so small?
The size of SD cards, however, has one downside: they’re extremely slow to write. Copying times for massive volumes of data are always long—at least always longer than you want—but the duration tends to stretch even more when you’re copying not to a speedy hard drive but to a minuscule silicon wafer embedded in plastic. Also, I wasn’t just copying. I was deduplicating, compressing, encrypting, none of which processes could be accomplished simultaneously with any other. I was using all the skills I’d ever acquired in my storage work, because that’s what I was doing, essentially. I was storing the NSA’s storage, making an off-site backup of evidence of the IC’s abuses.
It could take eight hours or more—entire shifts—to fill a card. And though I switched to working nights again, those hours were terrifying. There was the old computer chugging, monitor off, with all but one fluorescent ceiling panel dimmed to save energy in the after-hours. And there I was, turning the monitor back on every once in a while to check the rate of progress and cringing. You know the feeling—the sheer hell of following the completion bar as it indicates 84 percent completed, 85 percent completed … 1:58:53 left … As it filled toward the sweet relief of 100 percent, all files copied, I’d be sweating, seeing shadows and hearing footsteps around every corner.
the final step. As each card filled, I had to run my getaway routine. I had to get that vital archive out of the building, past the bosses and military uniforms, down the stairs and out the empty hall, past the badge scans and armed guards and mantraps—those two-doored security zones in which the next door doesn’t open until the previous door shuts and your badge scan is approved, and if it isn’t, or if anything else goes awry, the guards draw their weapons and the doors lock you in and you say, “Well, isn’t this embarrassing?” This—per all the reports I’d been studying, and all the nightmares I’d been having—was where they’d catch me, I was sure of it. Each time I left, I was petrified. I’d have to force myself not to think about the SD card. When you think about it, you act differently, suspiciously.
One unexpected upshot of gaining a better understanding of NSA surveillance was that I’d also gained a better understanding of the dangers I faced. In other words, learning about the agency’s systems had taught me how not to get caught by them. My guides in this regard were the indictments that the government had brought against former agents—mostly real bastards who, in IC jargon, had “exfiltrated” classified information for profit. I compiled, and studied, as many of these indictments as I could. The FBI—the agency that investigates all crime within the IC—took great pride in explaining exactly how they caught their suspects, and believe me, I didn’t mind benefiting from their experience. It seemed that in almost every case, the FBI would wait to make its arrest until the suspect had finished their work and was about to go home. Sometimes they would let the suspect take the material out of a SCIF—a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, which is a type of building or room shielded against surveillance—and out into the public, where its very presence was a federal crime. I kept imagining a team of FBI agents lying in wait for me—there, out in the public light, just at the far end of the Tunnel.
I’d usually try to banter with the guards, and this was where my Rubik’s Cube came in most handy. I was known to the guards and to everybody else at the Tunnel as the Rubik’s Cube guy, be
cause I was always working the cube as I walked down the halls. I got so adept I could even solve it one-handed. It became my totem, my spirit toy, and a distraction device as much for myself as for my coworkers. Most of them thought it was an affectation, or a nerdy conversation starter. And it was, but primarily it relieved my anxiety. It calmed me.
I bought a few cubes and handed them out. Anyone who took to it, I’d give them pointers. The more that people got used to them, the less they’d ever want a closer look at mine.
I got along with the guards, or I told myself I did, mostly because I knew where their minds were: elsewhere. I’d done something like their job before, back at CASL. I knew how mind-numbing it was to spend all night standing, feigning vigilance. Your feet hurt. After a while, all the rest of you hurts. And you can get so lonely that you’ll talk to a wall.
I aimed to be more entertaining than the wall, developing my own patter for each human obstacle. There was the one guard I talked to about insomnia and the difficulties of day-sleeping (remember, I was on nights, so this would’ve been around two in the morning). Another guy, we discussed politics. He called Democrats “Demon Rats,” so I’d read Breitbart News in preparation for the conversation. What they all had in common was a reaction to my cube: it made them smile. Over the course of my employment at the Tunnel, pretty much all the guards said some variation of, “Oh man, I used to play with that when I was a kid,” and then, invariably, “I tried to take the stickers off to solve it.” Me too, buddy. Me too.
It was only once I got home that I was able to relax, even just slightly. I was still worried about the house being wired—that was another one of those charming methods the FBI used against those it suspected of inadequate loyalty. I’d rebuff Lindsay’s concerns about my insomniac ways until she hated me and I hated myself. She’d go to bed and I’d go to the couch, hiding with my laptop under a blanket like a child because cotton beats cameras. With the threat of immediate arrest out of the way, I could focus on
transferring the files to a larger external storage device via my laptop—only somebody who didn’t understand technology very well would think I’d keep them on the laptop forever—and locking them down under multiple layers of encryption algorithms using differing implementations, so that even if one failed the others would keep them safe.
I’d been careful not to leave any traces at my work, and I took care that my encryption left no traces of the documents at home. Still, I knew the documents could lead back to me once I’d sent them to the journalists and they’d been decrypted. Any investigator looking at which agency employees had accessed, or could access, all these materials would come up with a list with probably only a single name on it: mine. I could provide the journalists with fewer materials, of course, but then they wouldn’t be able to most effectively do their work. Ultimately, I had to contend with the fact that even one briefing slide or PDF left me vulnerable, because all digital files contain metadata, invisible tags that can be used to identify their origins.