Snowden bested the NSA’s security with simple measures that should have been easily detected.
This image made available by The Guardian Newspaper in London shows an undated image of Edward Snowden, 29. Snowden worked as a contract employee at the National Security Agency and is the source of The Guardian's disclosures about the U.S. government's secret surveillance programs, as the British newspaper reported Sunday, June 9, 2013. (AP Photo/The Guardian, Ewen MacAskill) NO SALES NO ARCHIVE ONE TIME USE ONLY MANDATORY CREDIT ORG XMIT: MIN2013060916315083 ORG XMIT: MIN1306091634454735
Intelligence officials investigating how Edward Snowden gained access to roughly 1.7 million of the country’s most highly classified documents say they have determined that he used inexpensive and widely available software to “scrape” the National Security Agency’s networks, and he kept at it even after he was briefly challenged by agency officials.
Using “Web crawler” software designed to search, index and back up a website, Snowden “scraped data out of our systems” while he went about his day job, according to a senior intelligence official. “We do not believe this was an individual sitting at a machine and downloading this much material in sequence,” the official said. The process, he added, was “quite automated.”
The findings are striking because the NSA’s mission includes protecting the nation’s most sensitive military and intelligence computer systems from cyberattacks, especially the sophisticated attacks that emanate from Russia and China. Snowden’s “insider attack,” by contrast, was hardly sophisticated and should have been easily detected, investigators found.
Moreover, Snowden succeeded nearly three years after the WikiLeaks disclosures, in which military and State Department files, of far less sensitivity, were taken using similar techniques.
Snowden had broad access to the NSA’s complete files because he was working as a technology contractor for the agency in Hawaii, helping to manage the agency’s computer systems in an outpost that focuses on China and North Korea. A Web crawler, also called a spider, automatically moves from website to website, following links embedded in each document, and can be programmed to copy everything in its path.
Snowden appears to have set the parameters for the searches, including which subjects to look for and how deeply to follow links to documents and other data on the NSA’s internal networks.
‘Some place had to be last’ for upgrade
Among the materials prominent in the Snowden files are the agency’s shared “wikis,” databases to which intelligence analysts, operatives and others contributed their knowledge. Some of that material indicates that Snowden “accessed” the documents. But experts say they may well have been downloaded not by him but by the program acting on his behalf.
Agency officials insist that if Snowden had been working from NSA headquarters at Fort Meade, Md., which was equipped with monitors designed to detect when a huge volume of data was being accessed and downloaded, he almost certainly would have been caught. But because he worked at an agency outpost that had not yet been upgraded with modern security measures, his copying of what the agency’s newly appointed No. 2 officer, Rick Ledgett, recently called “the keys to the kingdom” raised few alarms.
“Some place had to be last” in getting the security upgrade, said one official familiar with Snowden’s activities. But he added that Snowden’s actions had been “challenged a few times.”
In at least one instance when he was questioned, Snowden provided what were later described to investigators as legitimate-sounding explanations for his activities: As a systems administrator, he was responsible for conducting routine network maintenance. That could include backing up the computer systems and moving information to local servers, investigators were told.
But from his first days working as a contractor inside the NSA’s underground Oahu, Hawaii, facility for Dell, a computer maker, and then at a modern office building on the island for Booz Allen Hamilton, a technology consulting firm that sells and operates computer security services used by the government, Snowden learned something critical about the NSA’s culture: While the organization built enormously high electronic barriers to keep out foreign invaders, it had rudimentary protections against insiders.
“Once you are inside, the assumption is that you are supposed to be there, like in most organizations,” said Richard Bejtlich, the chief security strategist for FireEye, a Silicon Valley computer security firm, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “But that doesn’t explain why they weren’t more vigilant about excessive activity in the system.”
Investigators have yet to answer the question of whether Snowden happened into an ill-defended outpost of the NSA or sought a job there because he knew it had yet to install the security upgrades that might have stopped him. “He was either very lucky or very strategic,” one intelligence official said.
A new book, “The Snowden Files,” by Luke Harding, a correspondent for the Guardian in London, reports that Snowden sought his job at Booz Allen because “to get access to a final tranche of documents” he needed “greater security privileges than he enjoyed in his position at Dell.”