Privacy SOS

If NSA doesn’t know what Snowden took, all its abuse figures are totally meaningless

NBC news reports that anonymous intelligence officials say the NSA doesn’t know what Edward Snowden took.

The NSA had poor data compartmentalization, said the sources, allowing Snowden, who was a system administrator, to roam freely across wide areas. By using a “thin client” computer he remotely accessed the NSA data from his base in Hawaii. One U.S. intelligence official said government officials “are overwhelmed" trying to account for what Snowden took. Another said that the NSA has a poor audit capability, which is frustrating efforts to complete a damage assessment.

About 70% of the intelligence budget is spent paying private contractors to run the NSA and other agencies’ secretive surveillance and offensive information operations. The NSA has assured us that its analysts hardly ever abuse their nearly omnipotent powers to check up on our personal lives, sans any criminal predicate, judicial oversight or technical obstacle.

But officials tell NBC news a totally different story: that "NSA has a poor audit capability," which makes it difficult to "complete a damage assessment." 

Let’s add it up. The NSA says it doesn’t know what Snowden took. The NSA also assures us abuse figures are low, and that we shouldn’t worry so much about the enormous and unaccountable surveillance regime it has constructed, largely in the shadows. The NSA can police itself, we hear.

Pretend that’s true. For just a moment, give the NSA the benefit of the doubt — even though all available evidence suggests you should never, ever do that — and believe officials when they say that their employees are trustworthy, that their minimization procedures work to protect our privacy. 

What about the contractors? If we are to believe these anonymous officials, the NSA has little to no idea what these tens or hundreds of thousands (or millions?) of well-paid private intelligence mercenaries are doing with our private information. 

And what about the NSA's "poor audit capability"? If the NSA can't figure out what contractors are doing inside its data systems, who is to say it has a handle on its own employees, either?

If these questions don't make you feel warm and safe, I don’t know what could.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.