That's a year before previously believed, and sheds light on how easily a person with the proper skills, experience, and connections could get access to NSA data by working with a contractor hired by the agency.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Snowden began working for Dell in 2009, and only stopped in March 2013.
In June, Snowden leaked a trove of NSA training documents to Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald. Those leaks included evidence that the NSA captures the metadata of almost all American phone calls, can easily tap American Internet companies for foreigners' stored files (PRISM), can track most users' Internet activity in real time (XKeyscore), and can circumvent the need for a warrant to spy on American citizens' emails and chats.
It was previously believed that Snowden got all of those documents while working as a system administrator for Booz Allen Hamilton, which also had a contract with the NSA. By Booz Allen Hamilton's own admission, Snowden worked there less than three months before leaving the U.S., perhaps for good.
Representatives from Dell have been far less forthcoming, refusing to even answer whether they'd employed Snowden.
The U.S. official said while he was at Dell, Snowden saw evidence of one of the NSA's biggest, most incredible programs, which gave the agency the ability to collect Internet traffic from huge, undersea fiber-optic cables.
That sounds quite similar to Fairview, a relatively little-known program whose PowerPoint slides indicate it's used to tap Internet traffic at that most fundamental level. NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake has described Fairview to the Daily Dot as the NSA's project to "own the Internet."
Fairview or something similar, it likely is the sort of evidence this prompted Snowden to become a whistleblower. He stated in June that he specifically took that Booz Allen Hamilton job because it afforded him access to more classified NSA documents.
Illustration by Jason Reed