Unmasking of PRISM whistleblower reveals the extent of the NSA’s vulnerabilities

In a further development of the PRISM story, the source of the leaks has been revealed to be 29 year old Edward Snowden who was a systems administrator working for defence contractor Booz Alan Hamilton. Snowden has spoken on film to journalists from a hotel in Hong Kong where he has been in hiding since he left his home in Hawaii on the 20th May.

Although Snowden had only worked for Booz Allen on this contract for 3 months, he had previously worked for the CIA and also as a contractor for the NSA. Snowden has talked about his motives in becoming a whistleblower and obviously faces an uncertain future. He has said that he is looking for asylum, possibly in Iceland but his immediate future will be up to the Chinese government to decide.

The revelations about and from Snowden, like those of Bradley Manning have again raised the enormous vulnerability of the US secret services to leaks. It is almost a vicious circle of the more active the services become in monitoring the rest of the world, the harder the act becomes for employees to conscience, and the more likely they are to be forced to act. The massive scale of the data intelligence gathering that now goes on also means that more people are necessarily involved with broader access to this information. Again this makes it that much harder to contain.

If you imagine that two people have decided to go public and reveal this much information, it seems almost certain that foreign agencies will have got this information covertly in any case.

Snowden was in a privileged position as a systems administrator in having access to a wide range of systems and the information they contained. This is a general problem for all organisations in that people in these positions have the technical knowledge and position to do almost anything they want with the network and corporate systems. If Snowden’s intentions were purely malicious, he could have presumably done reasonable damage through the access he had.

There are a lot of questions still outstanding both with what the NSA were doing with PRISM and Boundless Informant - the two programmes at the heart of the data collection and analysis at the NSA - and about what Snowden was thinking when he went initially to the Washington Post and then to the Guardian. Both news organisations have only published 4 of the 41 slides that were featured on PRISM stating that the rest of the information was just too sensitive to publish.

Snowden may not have simply published the information directly because he needed to establish the provenance of the leaks. According to the Washington Post, Snowden used a cryptographic key to prove that the information he had supplied was authentic.

The fact that Snowden was working for defence contractor Booz Allen was probably serendipitous but it has highlighted the entrenched links between the US military and commercial private contractors. The director of national intelligence, James Clapper, was a former Booz Allen executive. The current vice-chairman of the company, Mike McConnell, was the director of national intelligence under the George W Bush administration. Other executives from Booz Allen have held senior positions in other services, including a former CIA director.

If nothing else, this case has highlighted the extreme collusion of US Government and US Corporate interests at the expense of the “common man”. What Snowden has taken on in his revelations is spectacular for its courage given the forces ranged against him and his almost certain capture.

Snowden is both articulate and intelligent. Traits he will need to call on in the coming days.