Technical Details from Snowden

This summer has given confirmation to many things that technologists only guessed before. We know much more about what the NSA, GCHQ and other intelligence services are doing around the world, how they are subverting privacy and security in the name of fighting terrorism. All of this is primarily thanks to Edward Snowden, Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald – with the help of many other courageous people. For the technically inclined, last weeks revelations about how the NSA is pursuing a broad program to subvert all kinds of encryption was probably one of the most worrying releases. But right now we’re also seeing a strong backlash against Greenwald, claiming that he should be releasing the names of technologies broken, the companies involved and who specifically is complicit in all this. A lot of people are ascribing malicious intentions to Greenwald for keeping these things to himself. I would just like to add two things to the debate:

First, it is highly likely that Snowden did not in fact have access to what specific technologies were broken. It might not exist in the papers he gave to Greenwald and others. As far as we know, Snowden was not cleared for BULLRUN and related programs, and the fact that we know about them is because he managed to get access to protected documents he wasn’t supposed to be able to access. So I think it’s only fair to give Greenwald the benefit of the doubt – he might not be able to tell us the specific algorithms that are broken. Let’s not immediately jump to the conclusion that he is acting maliciously.

When it comes to what companies and people are complicit in these issues, in the short term it would be very useful for us to know. I suspect there are good reasons why this information hasn’t been released yet – but let’s not forget that many companies have been outed as cooperating in one way or another under the PRISM program.

The big problem is this – for us technologists to stop future BULLRUN programs to happen we need to build new organizational structures. We need to guard ourselves from compromised algorithms and hardware chips with backdoors. In order to do that we need to change how we do these things – and this will require long term cultural fixes. And even though it would be very satisfying in the short term to know what companies and people to be angry at, in the long run we need to build up an immune system that stops this from happening again.

This all said – I’m dying to know all these details myself. I think it’s pretty human. But let us not lose sight of the real battle.

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