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A Leak in the System

Binyamin Rose

Candidates for security clearance undergo a broad series of background checks and personality profiling, which made it all the more shocking when Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old computer security expert, broke his professional code of silence by peeling the rings of secrecy off the clandestine government spying program he worked on. What was lurking under the lid that made Snowden spill the beans?

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

For some people, three months inHawaiiis not long enough to settle in, but for Edward Snowden, it was more than unsettling. Shortly after arriving in theAlohaStatefromMaryland, fresh off an advanced training program at his position with a defense security firm, Snowden said aloha to his employer. He fled toHong Kongwith a small black suitcase and four laptops, said to contain top secret information he pilfered from the government computers he was paid to protect.

No one knows for sure what secrets still lurk in the hard drives of those laptops, but Snowden’s initial revelations to the Guardian and the Washington Post spilled the beans on a covert intelligence gathering program code-named PRISM.

PRISM — at least until Snowden broke the story — was a top secret National Security Agency (NSA) program that collected call log data from millions of cellular phone customers and mined the servers of the country’s largest technology companies, including Google and Amazon. The NSA is one of theUSgovernment’s leading agencies in the war on terror, for those in the government who still call it that. To many critics, PRISM represents a massive and unprecedented intrusion into the private correspondence of average Americans who pose no threat to the nation. But the NSA says that of the millions of US phone records culled each day, fewer than 300 are flagged for further investigation.

Snowden was well positioned to break the story. The company he worked for, Booz Allen Hamilton — a defense contractor the NSA hired to manage PRISM — was paying him $200,000 a year to use his information technology skills to keep that very surveillance system secure.

Besides embarrassing the USgovernment by revealing the program itself, it is unclear what further damage Snowden may cause. The New York Times reported that Snowden has told the Guardian that as a systems administrator, he had electronic access to American intelligence operations all over the world. Others are skeptical, saying Snowden, who also worked for the CIA for a short period of time, is too low in the security chain to be as knowledgeable as he claims he is.

Some reports indicate that Snowden leaked documents to the Guardian that will form the basis of upcoming articles with even more shocking revelations. This remains to be seen. His disclosure that theUS has allegedly been hacking the computers of a wide range of public officials, businesses, universities, and students inChina andHong Kong is not entirely new to those in the know. However, it underminesAmerica’s public pleas toChina to cease and desist from hacking US computers to steal American technology.

 

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