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Edward Snowden’s lesson to both businesses and the NSA: Your IT people are your biggest risk

Photo by The Guardian via Getty Images
Edward Snowden at his hotel room in Hong Kong.
By Gideon Lichfield
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Edward Snowden—the man behind what the Guardian is calling, with only a little hyperbole, “one of the most significant leaks in US political history”—was not what you would call a high-level agent.

By his own account, Snowden was a mediocre student who joined the National Security Agency (NSA) as a security guard, learned to program, wound up managing network security for the CIA station in Geneva, and then spent four years working at the NSA for private contractors. What he saw apparently prompted him to take refuge in Hong Kong before leaking top-secret documents about the NSA’s intelligence-gathering capabilities to the Guardian and the Washington Post.

And it’s precisely his lowly status that made Snowden such a risk, according to John Schindler, an ex-NSA analyst and counterintelligence officer who now teaches at the US Naval War College.

Schindler has been tweeting with considerable disdain about Snowden, calling him a “weenie,” a “dork,” and a “textbook case of delusion, ego, mental instability,” and suggesting that Snowden chose Hong Kong because he plans to defect to the Chinese. I asked Schindler if the NSA was using ex-staffers like him to discredit Snowden; “They’re not that forward-leaning, I can assure you” he replied.

Whatever his motive, Schindler’s tweets reveal a cultural rift between the “blue badge” holders, who have passed exhaustive background checks and indoctrination, and the green-badged contractors like Snowden, as well as between intelligence analysts and technicians in general:

And what happens when people whom your core employees despise have access to some of your most sensitive information? Nothing good, as Schindler—once you strip away the disparaging tone—rather pertinently points out:

And he recalls that lowly operatives have wrecked major intelligence operations in the past:

In both government and business, stories of disgruntled IT personnel who have wreaked havoc are legion. They include the system administrator who locked everyone else out of San Francisco’s central computer system, the Australian who made a computerized waste-management system spill millions of liters of raw sewage into parks and rivers, the car-dealership worker who remotely shut down the cars of over 100 furious customers, and the guy who hacked into his ex-boss’s computer while he was giving a presentation to the city mayor and put a naked woman on the screen instead. Whether you’re running a 20-person office or the world’s biggest intelligence agency, remember who has the power to blow you up.

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