The message arrives on my “clean machine,” a MacBook Air loaded only with a sophisticated encryption package. “Change in plans,” my contact says. “Be in the lobby of the Hotel ______ by 1 pm. Bring a book and wait for ES to find you.”
He is a uniquely postmodern breed of whistle-blower. Physically, very few people have seen him since he disappeared into Moscow’s airport complex last June. But he has nevertheless maintained a presence on the world stage—not only as a man without a country but as a man without a body. When being interviewed at the South by Southwest conference or receiving humanitarian awards, his disembodied image smiles down from jumbotron screens. For an interview at the TED conference in March, he went a step further—a small screen bearing a live image of his face was placed on two leg-like poles attached vertically to remotely controlled wheels, giving him the ability to “walk” around the event, talk to people, and even pose for selfies with them. The spectacle suggests a sort of Big Brother in reverse: Orwell’s Winston Smith, the low-ranking party functionary, suddenly dominating telescreens throughout Oceania with messages promoting encryption and denouncing encroachments on privacy.
I read a recent Washington Post report. The story, by Greg Miller, recounts daily meetings with senior officials from the FBI, CIA, and State Department, all desperately trying to come up with ways to capture Snowden. One official told Miller: “We were hoping he was going to be stupid enough to get on some kind of airplane, and then have an ally say: ‘You’re in our airspace. Land.’ ” He wasn’t. And since he disappeared into Russia, the US seems to have lost all trace of him.
I do my best to avoid being followed as I head to the designated hotel for the interview, one that is a bit out of the way and attracts few Western visitors. I take a seat in the lobby facing the front door and open the book I was instructed to bring. Just past one, Snowden walks by, dressed in dark jeans and a brown sport coat and carrying a large black backpack over his right shoulder. He doesn’t see me until I stand up and walk beside him. “Where were you?” he asks. “I missed you.” I point to my seat. “And you were with the CIA?” I tease. He laughs.
He has been in Russia for more than a year now. He shops at a local grocery store where no one recognizes him, and he has picked up some of the language. He has learned to live modestly in an expensive city that is cleaner than New York and more sophisticated than Washington. In August, Snowden’s temporary asylum was set to expire. (On August 7, the government announced that he’d been granted a permit allowing him to stay three more years.)
Snowden is careful about what’s known in the intelligence world as operational security. As we sit down, he removes the battery from his cell phone. I left my iPhone back at my hotel. Snowden’s handlers repeatedly warned me that, even switched off, a cell phone can easily be turned into an NSA microphone. Knowledge of the agency’s tricks is one of the ways that Snowden has managed to stay free. Another is by avoiding areas frequented by Americans and other Westerners. Nevertheless, when he’s out in public at, say, a computer store, Russians occasionally recognize him. “Shh,” Snowden tells them, smiling, putting a finger to his lips.
Snowden still holds out hope that he will someday be allowed to return to the US. “I told the government I’d volunteer for prison, as long as it served the right purpose,” he says. “I care more about the country than what happens to me. But we can’t allow the law to become a political weapon or agree to scare people away from standing up for their rights, no matter how good the deal. I’m not going to be part of that.”
Meanwhile, Snowden will continue to haunt the US, the unpredictable impact of his actions resonating at home and around the world. The documents themselves, however, are out of his control. Snowden no longer has access to them; he says he didn’t bring them with him to Russia. Copies are now in the hands of three groups: First Look Media, set up by journalist Glenn Greenwald and American documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, the two original recipients of the documents; The Guardian newspaper, which also received copies before the British government pressured it into transferring physical custody (but not ownership) to The New York Times; and Barton Gellman, a writer for The Washington Post. It’s highly unlikely that the current custodians will ever return the documents to the NSA.
That has left US officials in something like a state of impotent expectation, waiting for the next round of revelations, the next diplomatic upheaval, a fresh dose of humiliation. Snowden tells me it doesn’t have to be like this. He says that he actually intended the government to have a good idea about what exactly he stole. Before he made off with the documents, he tried to leave a trail of digital bread crumbs so investigators could determine which documents he copied and took and which he just “touched.” That way, he hoped, the agency would see that his motive was whistle-blowing and not spying for a foreign government. It would also give the government time to prepare for leaks in the future, allowing it to change code words, revise operational plans, and take other steps to mitigate damage. But he believes the NSA’s audit missed those clues and simply reported the total number of documents he touched—1.7 million. (Snowden says he actually took far fewer.) “I figured they would have a hard time,” he says. “I didn’t figure they would be completely incapable.”
Snowden speculates that the government fears that the documents contain material that’s deeply damaging—secrets the custodians have yet to find. “I think they think there’s a smoking gun in there that would be the death of them all politically,” Snowden says. “The fact that the government’s investigation failed—that they don’t know what was taken and that they keep throwing out these ridiculous huge numbers—implies to me that somewhere in their damage assessment they must have seen something that was like, ‘Holy shit.’ And they think it’s still out there.”
Yet it is very likely that no one knows precisely what is in the mammoth haul of documents—not the NSA, not the custodians, not even Snowden himself. He would not say exactly how he gathered them, but others in the intelligence community have speculated that he simply used a web crawler, a program that can search for and copy all documents containing particular keywords or combinations of keywords. This could account for many of the documents that simply list highly technical and nearly unintelligible signal parameters and other statistics.
And there’s another prospect that further complicates matters: Some of the revelations attributed to Snowden may not in fact have come from him but from another leaker spilling secrets under Snowden’s name. Snowden himself adamantly refuses to address this possibility on the record. But independent of my visit to Snowden, I was given unrestricted access to his cache of documents in various locations. And going through this archive using a sophisticated digital search tool, I could not find some of the documents that have made their way into public view, leading me to conclude that there must be a second leaker somewhere. I’m not alone in reaching that conclusion. Both Greenwald and security expert Bruce Schneier—who have had extensive access to the cache—have publicly stated that they believe another whistle-blower is releasing secret documents to the media.
Some have even raised doubts about whether the infamous revelation that the NSA was tapping German chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone, long attributed to Snowden, came from his trough. At the time of that revelation, Der Spiegel simply attributed the information to Snowden and other unnamed sources. If other leakers exist within the NSA, it would be more than another nightmare for the agency—it would underscore its inability to control its own information and might indicate that Snowden’s rogue protest of government overreach has inspired others within the intelligence community. “They still haven’t fixed their problems,” Snowden says. “They still have negligent auditing, they still have things going for a walk, and they have no idea where they’re coming from and they have no idea where they’re going. And if that’s the case, how can we as the public trust the NSA with all of our information, with all of our private records, the permanent record of our lives?”
Snowden keeps close tabs on his evolving public profile, but he has been resistant to talking about himself. In part, this is because of his natural shyness and his reluctance about “dragging family into it and getting a biography.” He says he worries that sharing personal details will make him look narcissistic and arrogant. But mostly he’s concerned that he may inadvertently detract from the cause he has risked his life to promote. “I’m an engineer, not a politician,” he says. “I don’t want the stage. I’m terrified of giving these talking heads some distraction, some excuse to jeopardize, smear, and delegitimize a very important movement.”
While in Geneva, Snowden says, he met many spies who were deeply opposed to the war in Iraq and US policies in the Middle East. “The CIA case officers were all going, what the hell are we doing?” Because of his job maintaining computer systems and network operations, he had more access than ever to information about the conduct of the war. What he learned troubled him deeply. “This was the Bush period, when the war on terror had gotten really dark,” he says. “We were torturing people; we had warrantless wiretapping.”
He began to consider becoming a whistle-blower, but with Obama about to be elected, he held off. “I think even Obama’s critics were impressed and optimistic about the values that he represented,” he says. “He said that we’re not going to sacrifice our rights. We’re not going to change who we are just to catch some small percentage more terrorists.” But Snowden grew disappointed as, in his view, Obama didn’t follow through on his lofty rhetoric. “Not only did they not fulfill those promises, but they entirely repudiated them,” he says. “They went in the other direction. What does that mean for a society, for a democracy, when the people that you elect on the basis of promises can basically suborn the will of the electorate?”
Snowden’s disenchantment would only grow. It was bad enough when spies were getting bankers drunk to recruit them; now he was learning about targeted killings and mass surveillance, all piped into monitors at the NSA facilities around the world. Snowden would watch as military and CIA drones silently turned people into body parts. And he would also begin to appreciate the enormous scope of the NSA’s surveillance capabilities, an ability to map the movement of everyone in a city by monitoring their MAC address, a unique identifier emitted by every cell phone, computer, and other electronic device.
Snowden adjusts his glasses; one of the nose pads is missing, making them slip occasionally. He seems lost in thought, looking back to the moment of decision, the point of no return. The time when, thumb drive in hand, aware of the enormous potential consequences, he secretly went to work. “If the government will not represent our interests,” he says, his face serious, his words slow, “then the public will champion its own interests. And whistle-blowing provides a traditional means to do so.”
Snowden landed a job as an infrastructure analyst with another giant NSA contractor, Booz Allen. The role gave him rare dual-hat authority covering both domestic and foreign intercept capabilities—allowing him to trace domestic cyberattacks back to their country of origin. In his new job, Snowden became immersed in the highly secret world of planting malware into systems around the world and stealing gigabytes of foreign secrets. At the same time, he was also able to confirm, he says, that vast amounts of US communications “were being intercepted and stored without a warrant, without any requirement for criminal suspicion, probable cause, or individual designation.” He gathered that evidence and secreted it safely away.
One day an intelligence officer told him that TAO—a division of NSA hackers—had attempted in 2012 to remotely install an exploit in one of the core routers at a major Internet service provider in Syria, which was in the midst of a prolonged civil war. This would have given the NSA access to email and other Internet traffic from much of the country. But something went wrong, and the router was bricked instead—rendered totally inoperable. The failure of this router caused Syria to suddenly lose all connection to the Internet—although the public didn’t know that the US government was responsible. (This is the first time the claim has been revealed.)
“It’s no secret that we hack China very aggressively,” he says. “But we’ve crossed lines. We’re hacking universities and hospitals and wholly civilian infrastructure rather than actual government targets and military targets. And that’s a real concern.”
The last straw for Snowden was a secret program he discovered while getting up to speed on the capabilities of the NSA’s enormous and highly secret data storage facility in Bluffdale, Utah. Potentially capable of holding upwards of a yottabyte of data, some 500 quintillion pages of text, the 1 million-square-foot building is known within the NSA as the Mission Data Repository. (According to Snowden, the original name was Massive Data Repository, but it was changed after some staffers thought it sounded too creepy—and accurate.) Billions of phone calls, faxes, emails, computer-to-computer data transfers, and text messages from around the world flow through the MDR every hour. Some flow right through, some are kept briefly, and some are held forever.
The massive surveillance effort was bad enough, but Snowden was even more disturbed to discover a new, Strangelovian cyberwarfare program in the works, codenamed MonsterMind. The program, disclosed here for the first time, would automate the process of hunting for the beginnings of a foreign cyberattack. Software would constantly be on the lookout for traffic patterns indicating known or suspected attacks. When it detected an attack, MonsterMind would automatically block it from entering the country—a “kill” in cyber terminology.
Programs like this had existed for decades, but MonsterMind software would add a unique new capability: Instead of simply detecting and killing the malware at the point of entry, MonsterMind would automatically fire back, with no human involvement. That’s a problem, Snowden says, because the initial attacks are often routed through computers in innocent third countries. “These attacks can be spoofed,” he says. “You could have someone sitting in China, for example, making it appear that one of these attacks is originating in Russia. And then we end up shooting back at a Russian hospital. What happens next?”
In addition to the possibility of accidentally starting a war, Snowden views MonsterMind as the ultimate threat to privacy because, in order for the system to work, the NSA first would have to secretly get access to virtually all private communications coming in from overseas to people in the US. “The argument is that the only way we can identify these malicious traffic flows and respond to them is if we’re analyzing all traffic flows,” he says. “And if we’re analyzing all traffic flows, that means we have to be intercepting all traffic flows. That means violating the Fourth Amendment, seizing private communications without a warrant, without probable cause or even a suspicion of wrongdoing. For everyone, all the time.”
Given the NSA’s new data storage mausoleum in Bluffdale, its potential to start an accidental war, and the charge to conduct surveillance on all incoming communications, Snowden believed he had no choice but to take his thumb drives and tell the world what he knew. The only question was when.
On March 13, 2013, sitting at his desk in the “tunnel” surrounded by computer screens, Snowden read a news story that convinced him that the time had come to act. It was an account of director of national intelligence James Clapper telling a Senate committee that the NSA does “not wittingly” collect information on millions of Americans. “I think I was reading it in the paper the next day, talking to coworkers, saying, can you believe this shit?”
Snowden and his colleagues had discussed the routine deception around the breadth of the NSA’s spying many times, so it wasn’t surprising to him when they had little reaction to Clapper’s testimony. “It was more of just acceptance,” he says, calling it “the banality of evil”—a reference to Hannah Arendt’s study of bureaucrats in Nazi Germany.
“It’s like the boiling frog,” Snowden tells me. “You get exposed to a little bit of evil, a little bit of rule-breaking, a little bit of dishonesty, a little bit of deceptiveness, a little bit of disservice to the public interest, and you can brush it off, you can come to justify it. But if you do that, it creates a slippery slope that just increases over time, and by the time you’ve been in 15 years, 20 years, 25 years, you’ve seen it all and it doesn’t shock you. And so you see it as normal. And that’s the problem, that’s what the Clapper event was all about. He saw deceiving the American people as what he does, as his job, as something completely ordinary. And he was right that he wouldn’t be punished for it, because he was revealed as having lied under oath and he didn’t even get a slap on the wrist for it. It says a lot about the system and a lot about our leaders.” Snowden decided it was time to hop out of the water before he too was boiled alive.
At the same time, he knew there would be dire consequences. “It’s really hard to take that step—not only do I believe in something, I believe in it enough that I’m willing to set my own life on fire and burn it to the ground.”
But he felt that he had no choice. Two months later he boarded a flight to Hong Kong with a pocket full of thumb drives.
rather than the Russian secret police, it’s his old employers, the CIA and the NSA, that Snowden most fears. “If somebody’s really watching me, they’ve got a team of guys whose job is just to hack me,” he says. “I don’t think they’ve geolocated me, but they almost certainly monitor who I’m talking to online. Even if they don’t know what you’re saying, because it’s encrypted, they can still get a lot from who you’re talking to and when you’re talking to them.”
More than anything, Snowden fears a blunder that will destroy all the progress toward reforms for which he has sacrificed so much. “I’m not self-destructive. I don’t want to self-immolate and erase myself from the pages of history. But if we don’t take chances, we can’t win,” he says. And so he takes great pains to stay one step ahead of his presumed pursuers—he switches computers and email accounts constantly. Nevertheless, he knows he’s liable to be compromised eventually: “I’m going to slip up and they’re going to hack me. It’s going to happen.”
Indeed, some of his fellow travelers have already committed some egregious mistakes. Last year, Greenwald found himself unable to open the encryption on a large trove of secrets from GCHQ—the British counterpart of the NSA—that Snowden had passed to him. So he sent his longtime partner, David Miranda, from their home in Rio to Berlin to get another set from Poitras. But in making the arrangements, The Guardian booked a transfer through London. Tipped off, probably as a result of GCHQ surveillance, British authorities detained Miranda as soon as he arrived and questioned him for nine hours. In addition, an external hard drive containing 60 gigabits of data—about 58,000 pages of documents—was seized. Although the documents had been encrypted using a sophisticated program known as True Crypt, the British authorities discovered a paper of Miranda’s with the password for one of the files, and they were able to decrypt about 75 pages. (Greenwald has still not gained access to the complete GCHQ documents.)
Another concern for Snowden is what he calls NSA fatigue—the public becoming numb to disclosures of mass surveillance, just as it becomes inured to news of battle deaths during a war. “One death is a tragedy, and a million is a statistic,” he says, mordantly quoting Stalin. “Just as the violation of Angela Merkel’s rights is a massive scandal and the violation of 80 million Germans is a nonstory.”
Nor is he optimistic that the next election will bring any meaningful reform. In the end, Snowden thinks we should put our faith in technology—not politicians. “We have the means and we have the technology to end mass surveillance without any legislative action at all, without any policy changes.” The answer, he says, is robust encryption. “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.”
“The question for us is not what new story will come out next. The question is, what are we going to do about it?”