In a far-ranging interview with Wired, National Security Agency contactor-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden claims the NSA is developing a secretive automated cybersecurity program that he says has the potential to “accidentally start a war.”
Speaking to veteran journalist James Bamford over the course of three weeks in Moscow, Snowden revealed for the first time the existence of MonsterMind, a piece of software allegedly being designed to “automate the process of hunting for the beginnings of foreign cyberattack,” looking for suspicious traffic and blocking it from entering the country.
Unlike run-of-the-mill security tools, Snowden claims, MonsterMind is not a purely for defense: It also attacks. “Instead of simply detecting and killing the malware at the point of entry,” Bamford writes, “MonsterMind would automatically fire back, with no human involvement.”
To give an example: Imagine Ukrainian rebels routed a sophisticated attack through Russian servers, targeting the United States. MonsterMind would detect the attack, block it, then fire back at Russia—without any human giving the order. Russia then detects an apparently unprovoked attack from the U.S., responds accordingly, and the U.S., assuming Russia is deliberately escalating, ups the ante. Suddenly—and totally by accident—two countries are at each others’ throats, with potentially devastating consequences.
In a second alleged revelation made to Bamford, Snowden says that U.S. spooks accidentally disconnected the entire country of Syria from the Internet. In 2012, he says, NSA hackers “attempted … to remotely install an exploit in one of the core routers at a major Internet service provider (ISP) in Syria, which was in the midst of a prolonged civil war.” All did not go as planned, however, and the router was “bricked”—with the consequence that Internet access for the entire country was lost. After the incident, Snowden says NSA personnel joked, “We can always point the finger at Israel.”
That—more than a year after the initial leaks—revelations like these are still bubbling to the surface is what scares the U.S. government so much, Snowden believes. “I think they think there’s a smoking gun in there that would be the death of them all politically,” he says.
“Somewhere in their damages assessment they must have seen something that was like, ‘Holy shit.’ And they think it’s still out there.”
Potential further revelations aside, Snowden says he actually wants to change the debate. He admits that “we haven’t seen the end,” but nonetheless reasons that the dialogue should change from reaction to action: “The question for us is not what new story will come out next. The question is, what are we going to do about it?”
To this, Snowden thinks he has an answer. He reiterates a theme he’s previously explored in his growing list of media appearances: that of direct action.
“We have the means and we have the technology to end mass surveillance without any legislative action at all, without any policy changes,” Snowden tells Bamford. “By basically adopting changes like making encryption a universal standard—where all communications are encrypted by default—we can end mass surveillance not just in the United States but around the world.”
Beyond this, the extensive interview touches upon Snowden’s family, his motivations, and the culture at the NSA. (It really does deserve to be read in its entirety.) The interview also explores:
• The possibility of a second leaker: There’s been speculation that there is a second—or even third—leaker at the NSA distributing confidential details to the press. (U.S. officials have reportedly admitted to the existence of a second leaker.) Whilst “Snowden himself adamantly refuses to address this possibility on the record,” Bamford has had unrestricted access to the trove of documents Snowden leaked and concluded that many of the NSA revelations in the press over the past year could not have come from Snowden.
• Snowden’s fear of “NSA fatigue”: With the potential for apathy brought on by constant disclosures about the security agency’s actions, he worries that it will dampen the public’s response to the revelations contained in his leaked documents. “The violation of Angela Merkel’s rights is a massive scandal and the violation of 80 million Germans is a nonstory.”
• That the 1.7 million documents figure may be false: Early reports suggested that Snowden had made off with nearly 2 million highly classified intelligence documents, but the whistleblower disputes this. “Snowden says he actually took far fewer,” Bamford reports, with the 1.7 million figure blamed on a failure to differentiate between those documents Snowden took and those he merely “touched.”
• That the CIA has a secret school for technology specialists: Snowden spent six months there living out of a hotel room, “studying and training full-time.”
• Snowden’s early inspirations: Greek myths in particular had a serious impact during the whistleblower’s formative years. “I think that’s when I started thinking about how we identify problems, and that the measure of an individual is how they address and confront these problems.”
• That Snowden considered whistleblowing as early as the Bush-era: Snowden says he was “profoundly affected” by the September 11, 2001 attacks, and signed up for the special forces in the attacks aftermath (he was discharged due to injuries). But he became disillusioned during Bush’s presidency, saying “the war on terror had gotten really dark.” Eventually he held off to see if Obama could follow through on his promises: “Not only did they not fulfil those promises, but they entirely repudiated them.” he said. “They went in the other direction.”
• The culture at the NSA: “You get exposed to a little bit of evil, a little bit of rule-breaking, a little bit of dishonesty … you can brush it off, you can justify that,” Snowden told Bamford. “But if you do that it creates a slippery slope that increases over time, and by the time you’ve been in … 25 years, you’ve seen it all and it doesn’t shock you. And so you see it as normal.”
• Snowden’s life in Russia: The 31-year-old “avoids areas frequented by Americans and Westerners”—but is nonetheless recognised from time-to-time. He does not, however, believe that the Americans have “geolocated” him so far, but admits it’s only a matter of time. “I’m going to slip up and they’re going to hack me,” he says. “It’s going to happen.”
• Whether or not Snowden will ever come home: Whilst Bamford says the former contractor “holds out hope that he will someday be allowed to return to the U.S.,” even if he goes to prison (“if it serves the right purpose”), a follow-up article by Wired editor-in-chief Scott Dadich is more telling. As photographer Platon was leaving his shoot with Snowden, he told him, “I hope I get to see you back at home, in the U.S.” Snowden’s response? “You probably won’t.”
H/T Wired | Image remix by Rob Price