Photo (above) credit: US Central Command
Snowden was spot on, the US (would and) is paying the price for focusing too much on the cyber offensive at the expense of cyber defense.
“The National Security Agency has two halves, one that handles defense and one that handles offense. Michael Hayden and Keith Alexander, the former directors of NSA, they shifted those priorities… But the problem is when you deprioritize defense, you put all of us at risk,” according to Snowden.
“If we attack a Chinese university and steal the secrets of their research program, how likely is it that that is going to be more valuable to the United States than when the Chinese retaliate and steal secrets from a U.S. university, from a U.S. defense contractor, from a U.S. military agency?
“The most important thing to us is not being able to attack our adversaries, the most important thing is to be able to defend ourselves. And we can’t do that as long as we’re subverting our own security standards for the sake of surveillance.”
The website PBS.org published an exclusive interview with Snowden and his views on cyber warfare, just days before the CENTCOM hacks early this week. Interestingly, the video link is no longer working but the full unedited transcript is splashed below.
Exclusive: Edward Snowden on Cyber Warfare
By James Bamford and Tim De Chant on Thu, 08 Jan 2015
Last June, journalist James Bamford, who is working with NOVA on a new film about cyber warfare that will air in 2015, sat down with Snowden in a Moscow hotel room for a lengthy interview. In it, Snowden sheds light on the surprising frequency with which cyber attacks occur, their potential for destruction, and what, exactly, he believes is at stake as governments and rogue elements rush to exploit weaknesses found on the internet, one of the most complex systems ever built by humans. The following is an unedited transcript of their conversation.
James Bamford: Thanks very much for coming. I really appreciate this. And it’s really interesting—the very day we’re meeting with you, this article came out in The New York Times, seemed to be downplaying the potential damage, which they really seem to have hyped up in the original estimate. What did you think of this article today?
Edward Snowden: So this is really interesting. It’s the new NSA director saying that the alleged damage from the leaks was way overblown. Actually, let me do that again.
So this is really interesting. The NSA chief in this who replaced Keith Alexander, the former NSA director, is calling the alleged damage from the last year’s revelations to be much more insignificant than it was represented publicly over the last year. We were led to believe that the sky was going to fall, that the oceans were going to boil off, the atmosphere was going to ignite, the world would end as we know it. But what he’s saying is that it does not lead him to the conclusion that the sky is falling.
And that’s a significant departure from the claims of the former NSA director, Keith Alexander. And it’s sort of a pattern that we’ve seen where the only U.S. officials who claim that these revelations cause damage rather than serve the public good were the officials that were personally embarrassed by it. For example, the chairs of the oversight committees in Congress, the former NSA director himself.
But we also have, on the other hand, the officials on the White House’s independent review panels who said that these programs had never been shown to stop even a single imminent terrorist attack in the United States, and they had no value. So how could it be that these programs were so valuable that talking about them, revealing them to the public would end the world if they hadn’t stopped any attacks?
But what we’re seeing and what this article represents is that the claims of harm that we got last year were not accurate and could in fact be claimed to be misleading, and I think that’s a concern. But it is good to see that the director of NSA himself now today, with full access to classified information, is beginning to come a little bit closer to the truth, getting a little bit closer to the President’s viewpoint on that, which is this discussion that we’ve had over the last year doesn’t hurt us. It makes us stronger. So thanks for showing that.
Bamford: Thanks. One other thing that the article gets into, which is what we’re talking about here today, is the article quotes the new NSA director, who is also the commander of Cyber Command, as basically saying that it’s possible in the future that these cyber weapons will become sort of normal military weapons, and they’ll be treated sort of like guided missiles or cruise missiles and so forth.
Snowden: Cruise missiles or drones.
Bamford: What are your thoughts about that, having spent time in this whole line of work yourself?
Snowden: I think the public still isn’t aware of the frequency with which these cyber-attacks, as they’re being called in the press, are being used by governments around the world, not just the US. But it is important to highlight that we really started this trend in many ways when we launched the Stuxnet campaign against the Iranian nuclear program. It actually kicked off a response, sort of retaliatory action from Iran, where they realized they had been caught unprepared. They were far behind the technological curve as compared to the United States and most other countries. And this is happening across the world nowadays, where they realize that they’re caught out. They’re vulnerable. They have no capacity to retaliate to any sort of cyber campaign brought against them.
The Iranians targeted open commercial companies of U.S. allies. Saudi Aramco, the oil company there—they sent what’s called a wiper virus, which is actually sort of a Fisher Price, baby’s first hack kind of a cyber-campaign. It’s not sophisticated. It’s not elegant. You just send a worm, basically a self-replicating piece of malicious software, into the targeted network. It then replicates itself automatically across the internal network, and then it simply erases all of the machines. So people go into work the next day and nothing turns on. And it puts them out of business for a period of time.
But with enterprise IT capabilities, it’s not trivial, but it’s not impossible to restore a company to working order in fairly short time. You can image all of the work stations. You can restore your backups from tape. You can perform what’s called bare metal restores, where you get entirely new hardware that matches your old hardware, if the hardware itself was broken, and just basically paint it up, restore the data just like the original target was, and you’re back in the clear. You’re moving along.
Now, this is something that people don’t understand fully about cyber-attacks, which is that the majority of them are disruptive, but not necessarily destructive. One of the key differentiators with our level of sophistication and nation-level actors is they’re increasingly pursuing the capability to launch destructive cyber-attacks, as opposed to the disruptive kinds that you normally see online, through protestors, through activists, denial of service attacks, and so on. And this is a pivot that is going to be very difficult for us to navigate.
Bamford: Let me ask you about that, because that is the focus of the program here. It’s a focus because very few people have ever discussed this before, and it’s the focus because the U.S. launched their very first destructive cyber-attack, the Stuxnet attack, as you mentioned, in Iran. Can you just tell me what kind of a milestone that was for the United States to launch their very first destructive cyber-attack?
Snowden: Well, it’s hard to say it’s the first ever, because attribution is always hard with these kind of campaigns. But it is fair to say that it was the most sophisticated cyber-attack that anyone had ever seen at the time. And the fact that it was launched as part of a U.S. authorized campaign did mark a radical departure from our traditional analysis of the levels of risks we want to assume for retaliation.
When you use any kind of internet based capability, any kind of electronic capability, to cause damage to a private entity or a foreign nation or a foreign actor, these are potential acts of war. And it’s critical we bear in mind as we discuss how we want to use these programs, these capabilities, where we want to draw the line, and who should approve these programs, these decisions, and at what level, for engaging in operations that could lead us as a nation into a war.
The reality is if we sit back and allow a few officials behind closed doors to launch offensive attacks without any oversight against foreign nations, against people we don’t like, against political groups, radicals, and extremists whose ideas we may not agree with, and could be repulsive or even violent—if we let that happen without public buy-in, we won’t have any seat at the table of government to decide whether or not it’s appropriate for these officials to drag us into some kind of war activity that we don’t want, but we weren’t aware of at the time.
Bamford: And what you seem to be talking about also is the blowback effect. In other words, if we launch an attack using cyber warfare, a destructive attack, we run the risk of having been the most industrialized and electronically connected country in the world, that that’s a major problem for the US. Is that your thinking?
Snowden: I do agree that when it comes to cyber warfare, we have more to lose than any other nation on earth. The technical sector is the backbone of the American economy, and if we start engaging in these kind of behaviors, in these kind of attacks, we’re setting a standard, we’re creating a new international norm of behavior that says this is what nations do. This is what developed nations do. This is what democratic nations do. So other countries that don’t have as much respect for the rules as we do will go even further.
And the reality is when it comes to cyber conflicts between, say, America and China or even a Middle Eastern nation, an African nation, a Latin American nation, a European nation, we have more to lose. If we attack a Chinese university and steal the secrets of their research program, how likely is it that that is going to be more valuable to the United States than when the Chinese retaliate and steal secrets from a U.S. university, from a U.S. defense contractor, from a U.S. military agency?
We spend more on research and development than these other countries, so we shouldn’t be making the internet a more hostile, a more aggressive territory. We should be cooling down the tensions, making it a more trusted environment, making it a more secure environment, making it a more reliable environment, because that’s the foundation of our economy and our future. We have to be able to rely on a safe and interconnected internet in order to compete.
Bamford: Where do you see this going in terms of destruction? In Iran, for example, they destroyed the centrifuges. But what other types of things might be targeted? Power plants or dams? What do you see as the ultimate potential damage that could come from the cyber warfare attack?
Snowden: When people conceptualize a cyber-attack, they do tend to think about parts of the critical infrastructure like power plants, water supplies, and similar sort of heavy infrastructure, critical infrastructure areas. And they could be hit, as long as they’re network connected, as long as they have some kind of systems that interact with them that could be manipulated from internet connection.
However, what we overlook and has a much greater value to us as a nation is the internet itself. The internet is critical infrastructure to the United States. We use the internet for every communication that businesses rely on every day. If an adversary didn’t target our power plants but they did target the core routers, the backbones that tie our internet connections together, entire parts of the United States could be cut off. They could be shunted offline, and we would go dark in terms of our economy and our business for minutes, hours, days. That would have a tremendous impact on us as a society and it would have a policy backlash.
The solution, however, is not to give the government more secret authorities to put kill switches and monitors and snooping devices on the internet. It’s to reorder our priorities for how we deal with threats to the security of our critical infrastructure, for our electronic infrastructure. And what that means is taking bodies like the National Security Agency that have traditionally been about securing the nation and making sure that that’s their first focus.
In the last 10 years, we’ve seen—in the last 10 years, we’ve seen a departure from that traditional role of signals intelligence gathering overseas that’s related to responding to threats that are—
Bamford: Take your time.
Snowden: Right. What we’ve seen over the last decade is we’ve seen a departure from the traditional work of the National Security Agency. They’ve become sort of the national hacking agency, the national surveillance agency. And they’ve lost sight of the fact that everything they do is supposed to make us more secure as a nation and a society.
The National Security Agency has two halves, one that handles defense and one that handles offense. Michael Hayden and Keith Alexander, the former directors of NSA, they shifted those priorities, because when they went to Congress, they saw they could get more budget money if they advertised their success in attacking, because nobody is ever really interested in doing the hard work of defense.
But the problem is when you deprioritize defense, you put all of us at risk. Suddenly, policies that would have been unbelievable, incomprehensible even 20 years ago are commonplace today. You see decisions being made by these agencies that authorize them to install backdoors into our critical infrastructure, that allow them to subvert the technical security standards that keep your communication safe when you’re visiting a banking website online or emailing a friend or logging into Facebook.
And the reality is, when you make those systems vulnerable so that you can spy on other countries and you share the same standards that those countries have for their systems, you’re also making your own country more vulnerable to the same attacks. We’re opening ourselves up to attack. We’re lowering our shields to allow us to have an advantage when we attack other countries overseas, but the reality is when you compare one of our victories to one of their victories, the value of the data, the knowledge, the information gained from those attacks is far greater to them than it is to us, because we are already on top. It’s much easier to drag us down than it is to grab some incremental knowledge from them and build ourselves up.
Bamford: Are you talking about China particularly?
Snowden: I am talking about China and every country that has a robust intelligence collection program that is well-funded in the signals intelligence realm. But the bottom line is we need to put the security back in the National Security Agency. We can’t have the national surveillance agency. We’ve got to go—look, the most important thing to us is not being able to attack our adversaries, the most important thing is to be able to defend ourselves. And we can’t do that as long as we’re subverting our own security standards for the sake of surveillance.
Bamford: That is a very strange combination, where you have one half of the NSA, the Information Assurances Directorate, which is charged with protecting the country from cyber-attacks, coexisting with the Signals Intelligence Directorate and the Cyber Command, which is pretty much focused on creating weaknesses. Can you just tell me a little bit about how that works, the use of vulnerabilities and implants and exploits?
Snowden: So broadly speaking, there are a number of different terms that are used in the CNO, computer networks operations world.
Broadly speaking, there are a number of different terms that are used to define the vernacular in the computer network operations world. There’s CNA, computer network attack, which is to deny, degrade, or destroy the functioning of a system. There’s CND, computer network defense, which is protecting systems, which is noticing vulnerabilities, noticing intrusions, cutting them off, and repairing them, patching the holes. And there’s CNE, computer network exploitation, which is breaking into a system and leaving something behind, this sort of electronic ear that will allow you to monitor everything that’s happening from that point forward. CNE is typically used for espionage, for spying.
To achieve these goals, we use things like exploits, implants, vulnerabilities, and so on. A vulnerability is a weakness in a system, where a computer program has a flaw in its code that, when it thinks it’s going to execute a normal routine task, it’s actually been tricked into doing something the attacker asks it to do. For example, instead of uploading a file to display a picture online, you could be uploading a bit of code that the website will then execute.
Or instead of logging into a website, you could enter code into the username field or into the password field, and that would crash through the boundaries of memory—that were supposed to protect the program—into the executable space of computer instructions. Which means when the computer goes through its steps of what is supposed to occur, it goes, I’m looking for user login. This is the username. This is the password. And then when it should go, check to see that these are correct, if you put something that was too long in the password field, it actually overwrites those next instructions for the computer. So it doesn’t know it’s supposed to check for a password. Instead, it says, I’m supposed to create a new user account with the maximum privileges and open up a port for the adversary to access my network, and then so on and so forth.
Vulnerabilities are generally weaknesses that can be exploited. The exploit itself are little shims of computer code that allow you to run any sort of program you want.
Exploits are the shims of computer code that you wedge into vulnerabilities to allow you to take over a system, to gain access to them, to tell that system what you wanted to do. The payload or implant follows behind the exploit. The exploit is what wedges you into the system. The payload is the instructions that are left behind. Now, those instructions often say install an implant.
The implant is an actual program that runs—it stays behind after the exploit has occurred—and says, tell me all of the files on this machine. Make a list of all of the users. Send every new email or every new keystroke that’s been recorded on this program each day to my machine as the attacker, or really anything you can imagine. It can also tell nuclear centrifuges to spin up to the maximum RPM and then spin down quickly enough that no one notices. It can tell a power plant to go offline.
Or it could say, let me know what this dissident is doing day to day, because it lives on their cell phone and it keeps track of all their movements, who they call, who they’re associating with, what wireless device it’s nearby. Really an exploit is only limited—or not an exploit. An implant is only limited by the imagination. Anything you can program a computer to do, you can program an implant to do.
Bamford: So you have the implant, and then you have the payload, right?
Snowden: The payload includes the implant. The exploit is what basically breaks into the vulnerability. The payload is what the exploit runs, and that is basically some kind of executable code. And the implant is a payload that’s left behind long term, some kind of basically listening program, some spying program, or some kind of a destructive program.
Bamford: Interviewing you is like doing power steering. I don’t have to pull this out.
Snowden: Yeah, sorry, I get a little ramble-y on my answers, and the political answers aren’t really strong, but I’m not a politician, so I’m just trying my best on these.
Bamford: This isn’t nightly news, so we’ve got an hour.
Snowden: Yeah, I hope you guys cut this so it’s not so terrible.
Producer: We’ve got two cameras, and we can carve your words up.
Snowden: (laughter) Great.
Producer: But we won’t.
Bamford: Should mention this implant now—the implant sounds a bit like what used to be sleeper agents back in the old days of the Cold War, where you have an agent that’s sitting there that can do anything. It can do sabotage. It can do espionage. It can do whatever. And looking at one of those slides that came out, what was really fascinating was the fact that the slide was a map of the world, and they had little yellow dots on it. The little yellow dots were indicated as CNEs, computer network exploitation. And you expect to see them in North Korea, China, different places like that. But what was interesting when we looked at it was there were quite a few actually in Brazil, for example, and other places that were friendly countries. Any idea why the U.S. would want to do something like that?
Snowden: So the way the United States intelligence community operates is it doesn’t limit itself to the protection of the homeland. It doesn’t limit itself to countering terrorist threats, countering nuclear proliferation. It’s also used for economic espionage, for political spying to gain some knowledge of what other countries are doing. And over the last decade, that sort of went too far.
No one would argue that it’s in the United States’ interest to have independent knowledge of the plans and intentions of foreign countries. But we need to think about where to draw the line on these kind of operations so we’re not always attacking our allies, the people we trust, the people we need to rely on, and to have them in turn rely on us. There’s no benefit to the United States hacking Angela Merkel’s cell phone. President Obama said if he needed to know what she was thinking, he would just pick up the phone and call her. But he was apparently allegedly unaware that the NSA was doing precisely that. These are similar things we see happening in Brazil and France and Germany and all these other countries, these allied nations around the world.
And we also need to remember that when we talk about computer network exploitation, computer network attack, we’re not just talking about your home PC. We’re not just talking about a control system in a factory somewhere. We’re talking about your cell phone, and we’re also talking about internet routers themselves. The NSA and its sister agencies are attacking the critical infrastructure of the internet to try to take ownership of it. They hack the routers that connect nations to the internet itself.
And this is dangerous for a number of reasons. It does provide us a real intelligence advantage, but at the same time, it’s a serious risk. If one of these hacking operations goes wrong, and this has happened in the past, and it’s a core router that connects all of the internet service providers for an entire country to the internet, we’ve blacked out that entire nation from online access until that problem can be corrected. And these routers are not your little Linksys, D-Link routers sitting at home. We’re talking $60,000, $600,000, $6 million devices, complexes, that are not easy to fix, and they don’t have an off the shelf replacement that’s ready to swap in.
So we need to be very careful, and we need to make sure that whenever we’re engaging in a cyber-warfare campaign, a cyber-espionage campaign in the United States, that we understand the word cyber is used as a euphemism for the internet, because the American public would not be excited to hear that we’re doing internet warfare campaigns, internet espionage campaigns, because we realize that we ourselves are impacted by it. The internet is shared critical infrastructure for everyone on earth. It’s not supposed to be a domain of warfare. We’re not supposed to be putting our economy on the frontlines in the battleground. But that’s increasingly what’s happening today.
So we need to put processes, policies, and procedures in place with real laws that forbid going beyond the borders of what’s reasonable to ensure that the only time that we and other countries around the world exercise these authorities are when it is absolutely necessary, there’s not alternative means of achieving the appropriate outcome, and it’s proportionate to the threat. We shouldn’t be putting an entire nation’s infrastructure at risk to spy on one company, to spy on one person. But increasingly, we see that happening more and more today.
Bamford: You mentioned the problems, the dangers involved if you’re trying to put an exploit into some country’s central nervous system when it comes to the internet. For example in Syria, there was a time when everything went down, and that was blamed on the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad. Did you have any particular knowledge of that?
Snowden: I don’t actually want to get into that one on camera, so I’ll have to demur on that.
Bamford: Can you talk around it somehow?
Snowden: What I would say is when you’re attacking a router on the internet, and you’re doing it remotely, it’s like trying to shoot the moon with a rifle. Everything has to happen exactly right. Every single variable has to be controlled and precisely accounted for. And that’s not possible to do when you have limited knowledge of the target you’re attacking.
So if you’ve got this gigantic router that you’re trying to hack, and you want to hack it in a way that’s undetectable by the systems administrators for that device, you have to get below the operating system level of that device, of that router. Not where it says here are the rules, here are the user accounts, here are the routes and the proper technical information that everybody who’s administering this device should have access to. Down onto the firmware level, onto the hardware control level of the device that nobody ever sees, because it’s sort of a dark place.
The problem is if you make a mistake when you’re manipulating the hardware control of a device, you can do what’s called bricking the hardware, and it turns it from a $6 million internet communications device to a $6 million paperweight that’s in the way of your entire nation’s communications. And that’s something that all I can say is has happened in the past.
Bamford: When we were in Brazil, we were shown this major internet connection facility. It was the largest internet hub in the southern hemisphere, and it’s sitting in Brazil. And the Brazilians had a lot of concern, because again, they saw the slide that showed all this malware being planted in Brazil. Is that a real concern that they should have, the fact that they’ve, number one, got this enormous internet hub sitting right in Sao Paulo, and then on the second hand, they’ve got NSA flooding the country with malware?
Snowden: The internet exchange is sort of the core points where all of the international cables come together, where all of the internet service providers come together, and they trade lines with each other, where we move from separate routes, separate highways on the internet into one coherent traffic circle where everybody can get on and off on the exit they want. These are priority one targets for any sort of espionage agency, because they provide access to so many people’s communications.
Internet exchanges and internet service providers—international fiber optic landing points—these are the key tools that governments go after in order to enable their programs of mass surveillance. If they want to be able to watch the entire population of a country instead of a single individual, you have to go after those bulk interchanges. And that’s what’s happening.
So it is a real threat, and the only way that can be accounted for is to make sure that there’s some kind of independent control and auditing, some sort of routine forensic investigations into these devices, to ensure that not only were they secure when they were installed, but they hadn’t been monitored or tampered with or changed in any way since that last audit occurred. And that requires doing things like creating mathematical proofs called hashes of the validity of the actual hardware signature and software signatures on these devices and their hardware.
Bamford: Another area—you mentioned the presidential panel that looked into all these areas that are of concern now, which you’ve basically brought out these areas. And the presidential panel came out with I think 46 different recommendations. One of those recommendations dealt with restricting the use or cutting back or maybe even doing away with the idea of going after zero-day exploits. Can you tell me a little bit about your fears that you may have of the U.S. creating this market of zero-day exploits?
Snowden: So a zero-day exploit is a method of hacking a system. It’s sort of a vulnerability that has an exploit written for it, sort of a key and a lock that go together to a given software package. It could be an internet web server. It could be Microsoft Office. It could be Adobe Reader or it could be Facebook. But these zero-day exploits—they’re called zero-days because the developer of the software is completely unaware of them. They haven’t had any chance to react, respond, and try to patch that vulnerability away and close it.
The danger that we face in terms of policy of stockpiling zero-days is that we’re creating a system of incentives in our country and for other countries around the world that mimic our behavior or that see it as a tacit authorization for them to perform the same sort of operations is we’re creating a class of internet security researchers who research vulnerabilities, but then instead of disclosing them to the device manufacturers to get them fixed and to make us more secure, they sell them to secret agencies.
They sell them on the black market to criminal groups to be able to exploit these to attack targets. And that leaves us much less secure, not just on an individual level, but on a broad social level, on a broad economic level. And beyond that, it creates a new black market for computer weapons, basically digital weapons.
And there’s a little bit of a free speech issue involved in regulating this, because people have to be free to investigate computer security. People have to be free to look for these vulnerabilities and create proof of concept code to show that they are true vulnerabilities in order for us to secure our systems. But it is appropriate to regulate the use and sale of zero-day exploits for nefarious purposes, in the same way you would regulate any other military weapon.
And today, we don’t do that. And that’s why we see a growing black market with companies like Endgame, with companies like Vupen, where all they do—their entire business model is finding vulnerabilities in the most critical infrastructure software packages we have around the internet worldwide, and instead of fixing those vulnerabilities, they tear them open and let their customers walk in through them, and they try to conceal the knowledge of these zero-day exploits for as long as possible to increase their commercial value and their revenues.
Bamford: Now, of those 46 recommendations, including the one on the zero-day exploits that the panel came up with, President Obama only approved maybe five or six at the most of those 46 recommendations, and he didn’t seem to talk at all about the zero-day exploit recommendation. What do you think of that, the fact that that was sort of ignored by the President?
Snowden: I can’t comment on presidential policies. That’s a landmine for me. I would recommend you ask Chris Soghoian at the ACLU, American Civil Liberties Union, and he can get you any quote you want on that. You don’t need me to speak to that point, but you’re absolutely right that where there’s smoke, there’s fire, as far as that’s concerned.
Bamford: Well, as someone who has worked at the NSA, been there for a long time, during that time you were there, they created this entire new organization called Cyber Command. What are your thoughts on the creation of this new organization that comes just like the NSA, under the director of NSA? Again, backing up, the director of NSA for ever since the beginning was only three stars, and now he’s a four star general, or four star admiral, and he’s got this enormous largest intelligence agency in the world, the NSA, under him, and now he’s got Cyber Command. What are your thoughts on that, having seen this from the inside?
Snowden: There was a strong debate last year about whether or not the National Security Agency and Cyber Command should be split into two independent agencies, and that was what the President’s independent review board suggested was the appropriate method, because when you have an agency that’s supposed to be defensive married to an agency that’s entire purpose in life is to break things and set them on fire, you’ve got a conflict of interest that is really going to reduce the clout of the defensive agency, while the offensive branch gains more clout, they gain more budget dollars, they gain more billets and personnel assignments.
So there’s a real danger with that happening. And Cyber Command itself has always existed in a—Cyber Command itself has always been branded in a sort of misleading way from its very inception. The director of NSA, when he introduced it, when he was trying to get it approved, he said he wanted to be clear that this was not a defensive team. It was a defend the nation team. He’s saying it’s defensive and not defensive at the same time.
Now, the reason he says that is because it’s an attack agency, but going out in front of the public and asking them to approve an aggressive warfare focused agency that we don’t need is a tough sell. It’s much better if we say, hey, this is for protecting us, this is for keeping us safe, even if all it does every day is burn things down and break things in foreign countries that we aren’t at war with.
So there’s a real careful balance that needs to be struck there that hasn’t been addressed yet, but so long as the National Security Agency and Cyber Command exist under one roof, we’ll see the offensive side of their business taking priority over the defensive side of the business, which is much more important for us as a country and as a society.
Bamford: And you mentioned earlier, if we could just go back a little bit over this again, how much more money is going to the cyber offensive time than going to the cyber defensive side. Not only more money, but more personnel, more attention, more focus.
Snowden: I didn’t actually get the question on that one.
Bamford: I just wondered if you could just elaborate a little bit more on that. Again, we have Cyber Command and we have the Information Assurance Division and so forth, and there’s far more money and personnel and emphasis going on the cyber warfare side than the defensive side.
Snowden: I think the key point in analyzing the balance and where we come out in terms of offense versus defense at the National Security Agency and Cyber Command is that, more and more, what we’ve read in the newspapers and what we see debating in Congress, the fact the Senate is now trying to put forward a bill called CISPA, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing—I don’t even know what it’s called—let me take that back.
We see more and more things occurring like the Senate putting forward a bill called CISPA, which is for cyber intelligence sharing between private companies and government agencies, where they’re trying to authorize not just the total immunity, a grant of total immunity, to private companies if they share the information on all of their customers, on all the American citizens and whatnot that are using their services, with intelligence agencies, under the intent that that information be used to protect them.
Congress is also trying to immunize companies in a way that will allow them to invite groups like the National Security Agency or the FBI to voluntarily put surveillance devices on their internal networks, with the stated intent being to detect cyber-attacks as they occur and be able to respond to them. But we’re ceding a lot of authority there. We’re immunizing companies from due diligence and protecting their customers’ privacy rights.
Actually, this is a point that’s way too difficult to make in the interview. Let me dial back out of that.
What we see more and more is sort of a breakdown in the National Security Agency. It’s becoming less and less the National Security Agency and more and more the national surveillance agency. It’s gaining more offensive powers with each passing year. It’s gained this new Cyber Command that’s under the director of NSA that by any measure should be an entirely separate organization because it has an entirely separate mission. All it does is attack.
And that’s putting us, both as a nation and an economy, in a state of permanent vulnerability and permanent risk, because when we lose a National Security Agency and instead get an offensive agency, we get an attack agency in its place, all of our eyes are looking outward, but they’re not looking inward, where we have the most to lose. And this is how we miss attacks time and time again. This results in intelligence failures such as the Boston Marathon bombings or the underwear bomber, Abdul Farouk Mutallab (sic).
In recent years, the majority of terrorist attacks that have been disrupted in the United States have been disrupted due to things like the Time Square bomber, who was caught by a hotdog vendor, not a mass surveillance program, not a cyber-espionage campaign.
So when we cannibalize dollars from the defensive business of the NSA, securing our communications, protecting our systems, patching zero-day vulnerabilities, and instead we’re giving those dollars to them to be used for creating new vulnerabilities in our systems so that they can surveil us and other people abroad who use the same systems. When we give those dollars to subvert our encryption methods so we don’t have any more privacy online and we apply all of that money to attacking foreign countries, we’re increasing the state of conflict, not just in diplomatic terms, but in terms of the threat to our critical infrastructure.
When the lights go out at a power plant sometime in the future, we’re going to know that that’s a consequence of deprioritizing defense for the sake of an advantage in terms of offense.
Bamford: One other problem I think is that people think that, as you mentioned—just to sort of clarify this—people out there that don’t really follow this that closely think that the whole idea of Cyber Command was to protect the country from cyber-attacks. Is that a misconception, the fact that these people think that the whole idea of Cyber Command is to protect them from cyber-attack?
Snowden: Well, if you ask anybody at Cyber Command or look at any of the job listings for openings for their positions, you’ll see that the one thing they don’t prioritize is computer network defense. It’s all about computer network attack and computer network exploitation at Cyber Command. And you have to wonder, if these are people who are supposed to be defending our critical infrastructure at home, why are they spending so much time looking at how to attack networks, how to break systems, and how to turn things off? I don’t think it adds up as representing a defensive team.
Bamford: Now, also looking a little bit into the future, it seems like there’s a possibility that a lot of this could be automated, so that when the Cyber Command or NSA sees a potential cyber-attack coming, there could be some automatic devices that would in essence return fire. And given the fact that it’s so very difficult to—or let me back up. Given the fact that it’s so easy for a country to masquerade where an attack is coming from, do you see a problem where you’re automating systems that automatically shoot back, and they may shoot back at the wrong country, and could end up starting a war?
Snowden: Right. So I don’t want to respond to the first part of your question, but the second part there I can use, which is relating to attribution and automated response. Which is that the—it’s inherently dangerous to automate any kind of aggressive response to a detected event because of false positives.
Let’s say we have a defensive system that’s tied to a cyber-attack capability that’s used in response. For example, a system is created that’s supposed to detect cyber-attacks coming from Iran, denial of service attacks brought against a bank. They detect what appears to be an attack coming in, and instead of simply taking a defensive action, instead of simply blocking it at the firewall and dumping that traffic so it goes into the trash can and nobody ever sees it—no harm—it goes a step further and says we want to stop the source of that attack.
So we will launch an automatic cyber-attack at the source IP address of that traffic stream and try to take that system online. We will fire a denial of service attack in response to it, to destroy, degrade, or otherwise diminish their capability to act from that.
But if that’s happening on an automated basis, what happens when the algorithms get it wrong? What happens when instead of an Iranian attack, it was simply a diagnostic message from a hospital? What happens when it was actually an attack created by an independent hacker, but you’ve taken down a government office that the hacker was operating from? That wasn’t clear.
What happens when the attack hits an office that a hacker from a third country had hacked into to launch that attack? What if it was a Chinese hacker launching an attack from an Iranian computer targeting the United States? When we retaliate against a foreign country in an aggressive manner, we the United States have stated in our own policies that’s an act of war that justifies a traditional kinetic military response.
We’re opening the doors to people launching missiles and dropping bombs by taking the human out of the decision chain for deciding how we should respond to these threats. And this is something we’re seeing more and more happening in the traditional means as our methods of warfare become increasingly automated and roboticized such as through drone warfare. And this is a line that we as a society, not just in the United States but around the world, must never cross. We should never allow computers to make inherently governmental decisions in terms of the application of military force, even if that’s happening on the internet.
Bamford: And Richard Clarke has said that it’s more important for us to defend ourselves against attacks from China than to attack China using cyber tools. Do you agree with that?
Snowden: I strongly agree with that. The concept there is that there’s not much value to us attacking Chinese systems. We might take a few computers offline. We might take a factory offline. We might steal secrets from a university research programs, and even something high-tech. But how much more does the United States spend on research and development than China does? Defending ourselves from internet-based attacks, internet-originated attacks, is much, much more important than our ability to launch attacks against similar targets in foreign countries, because when it comes to the internet, when it comes to our technical economy, we have more to lose than any other nation on earth.
Bamford: I think you said this before, but in the past, the U.S. has actually used cyber warfare to attack things like hospitals and things like that in China?
Snowden: So they’re not cyber warfare capabilities. They’re CNE, computer network exploitation.
Bamford: Yeah, if you could just explain that a little.
Snowden: I’m not going to get into that on camera. But what the stories showed and what you can sort of voice over is that Chinese universities—not just Chinese, actually—scratch that—is that the National Security Agency has exploited internet exchanges, internet service providers, including in Belgium—the Belgacom case— through their allies at GCHQ and the United Kingdom.
They’ve attacked universities, hospitals, internet exchange points, internet service providers—the critical infrastructure that all of us around the world rely on.
And it’s important to remember when you start doing things like attacking hospitals, when you start doing things like attacking universities, when you start attacking things like internet exchange points, when something goes wrong, people can die. If a hospital’s infrastructure is affected, lifesaving equipment turns off. When an internet exchange point goes offline and voice over IP calls with the common method of communication—cell phone networks rout through internet communications points nowadays—people can’t call 911. Buildings burn down. All because we wanted to spy on somebody.
So we need to be very careful about where we draw the line and what is absolutely necessary and proportionate to the threat that we face at any given time. I don’t think there’s anything, any threat out there today that anyone can point to, that justifies placing an entire population under mass surveillance. I don’t think there’s any threat that we face from some terrorist in Yemen that says we need to hack a hospital in Hong Kong or Berlin or Rio de Janeiro.
Bamford: I know we’re on a time limit here, but are there questions that I haven’t—
Producer: Let’s take a two minute break here.
Bamford: One of the most interesting things about the Stuxnet attack was that the President—both President Bush and President Obama—were told don’t worry, this won’t be detected by anybody. There’ll be no return address on this. And number two, it won’t escape from the area that they’re focusing it anyway, the centrifuges. Both of those proved wrong, and the virus did escape, and it was detected, and then it was traced back to the United States. So is this one of the big dangers, the fact that the President is told is these things, the President doesn’t have the capability to look into every technical issue, and then these things can wind up hitting us back in the face?
Snowden: The problem is the internet is the most complex system that humans have ever invented. And with every internet enabled operation that we’ve seen so far, all of these offensive operations, we see knock on effects. We see unintended consequences. We see emergent behavior, where when we put the little evil virus in the big pool of all our private lives, all of our private systems around the internet, it tends to escape and go Jurassic Park on us. And as of yet, we’ve found no way to prevent that. And given the complexity of these systems, it’s very likely that we never will.
What we need to do is we need to create new international standards of behavior—not just national laws, because this is a global problem. We can’t just fix it in the United States, because there are other countries that don’t follow U.S. laws. We have to create international standards that say these kind of things should only ever occur when it is absolutely necessary, and that the response that the operation is tailored to be precisely restrained and proportionate to the threat faced. And that’s something that today we don’t have, and that’s why we see these problems.
Bamford: Another problem is, back in the Cold War days—and most people are familiar with that—when there was a fairly limited number of countries that could actually develop nuclear weapons. There were a handful of countries basically that could have the expertise, take the time, find the plutonium, put a nuclear weapon together. Today, the world is completely different, and you could have a small country like Fiji with the capability of doing cyber warfare. So it isn’t limited like it was in those days to just a handful of countries. Do you see that being a major problem with this whole idea of getting into cyber warfare, where so many countries have the capability of doing cyber warfare, and the U.S. being the most technologically vulnerable country?
Snowden: Yeah, you’re right. The problem is that we’re more reliant on these technical systems. We’re more reliant on the critical infrastructure of the internet than any other nation out there. And when there’s such a low barrier to entering the domain of cyber-attacks—cyber warfare as they like to talk up the threat—we’re starting a fight that we can’t win.
Every time we walk on to the field of battle and the field of battle is the internet, it doesn’t matter if we shoot our opponents a hundred times and hit every time. As long as they’ve hit us once, we’ve lost, because we’re so much more reliant on those systems. And because of that, we need to be focusing more on creating a more secure, more reliable, more robust, and more trusted internet, not one that’s weaker, not one that relies on this systemic model of exploiting every vulnerability, every threat out there. Every time somebody on the internet sort of glances at us sideways, we launch an attack at them. That’s not going to work out for us long term, and we have to get ahead of the problem if we’re going to succeed.
Bamford: Another thing that the public doesn’t really have any concept of, I think at this point, is how organized this whole Cyber Command is, and how aggressive it is. People don’t realize there’s a Cyber Army now, a Cyber Air Force, a Cyber Navy. And the fact that the models for some of these organizations like the Cyber Navy are things like we will dominate the cyberspace the same way we dominate the sea or the same way that we dominate land and the same way we dominate space. So it’s this whole idea of creating an enormous military just for cyber warfare, and then using this whole idea of we’re going to dominate cyberspace, just like it’s the navies of centuries ago dominating the seas.
Snowden: Right. The reason they say that they want to dominate cyberspace is because it’s politically incorrect to say you want to dominate the internet. Again, it’s sort of a branding effort to get them the support they need, because we the public don’t want to authorize the internet to become a battleground. We need to do everything we can as a society to keep that a neutral zone, to keep that an economic zone that can reflect our values, both politically, socially, and economically. The internet should be a force for freedom. The internet should not be a tool for war. And for us, the United States, a champion of freedom, to be funding and encouraging the subversion of a tool for good to be a tool used for destructive ends is, I think, contrary to the principles of us as a society.
Bamford: You had a question, Scott?
Producer: It was really just a question about (inaudible) vulnerabilities going beyond operating systems that we know of, (inaudible) and preserving those vulnerabilities, that that paradox extends over into critical infrastructure as well as—
Snowden: Let me just freestyle on that for a minute, then you can record the question part whenever you want. Something we have to remember is that everything about the internet is interconnected. All of our systems are not just common to us because of the network links between them, but because of the software packages, because of the hardware devices that comprise it. The same router that’s deployed in the United States is deployed in China. The same software package that controls the dam floodgates in the United States is the same as in Russia. The same hospital software is there in Syria and the United States.
So if we are promoting the development of exploits, of vulnerabilities, of insecurity in this critical infrastructure, and we’re not fixing it when we find it—when we find critical flaws, instead we put it on the shelf so we can use it the next time we want to launch an attack against some foreign country. We’re leaving ourselves at risk, and it’s going to lead to a point where the next time a power plant goes down, the next time a dam bursts, the next time the lights go off in a hospital, it’s going to be in America, not overseas.
Bamford: Along those lines, one of the things we’re focusing on in the program is the potential extent of cyber warfare. And we show a dam, for example, in Russia, where there was a major power plant under that. This was a facility that was three times larger than the Hoover Dam, and it exploded. One of the turbines, which weighed as much as two Boeing 747s, exploded 50 feet into the air and then crashed down and killed 75 people. And that was all because of what was originally thought was a cyber-attack, but turned out to be a mistaken piece of cyber that was sent to make this happen. It was accidental.
But the point is this is what can happen if somebody wants to deliberately do this, and I don’t think that’s what many people in the U.S. have a concept of, that this type of warfare can be that extensive. And if you could just give me some ideas along those lines of how devastating this can be, not just in knocking off a power grid, but knocking down an entire dam or an entire power plant.
Snowden: So I don’t actually want to get in the business of enumerating the list of the horrible of horribles, because I don’t want to hype the threat. I’ve said all these things about the dangers and what can go wrong, and you’re right that there are serious risks. But at the same time, it’s important to understand that this is not an existential threat. Nobody’s going to press a key on their keyboard and bring down the government. Nobody’s going to press a key on their keyboard and wipe a nation off the face of the earth.
We have faced threats from criminal groups, from terrorists, from spies throughout our history, and we have limited our responses. We haven’t resorted to total war every time we have a conflict around the world, because that restraint is what defines us. That restraint is what gives us the moral standing to lead the world. And if we go, there are cyber threats out there, this is a dangerous world, and we have to be safe, we have to be secure no matter the cost, we’ve lost that standing.
We have to be able to reject disproportionate and unjustified responses in the cyber domain just as we do in the physical domain. We reject techniques like torture regardless of whether they’re effective or ineffective because they are barbaric and harmful on a broad scale. It’s the same thing with cyber warfare. We should never be attacking hospitals. We should never be taking down power plants unless that is absolutely necessary to ensure our continued existence as a free people.
Bamford: That’s fine with me. If there’s anything that you think we didn’t cover or you want to put in there?
Snowden: I was thinking about two things. One is—I went a lot off on the politics here, and a lot of it was ramble-y, so I might try one more thing on that. The other one I was talking about the VFX thing for the cloud, how cyber-attacks happen.
Producer: So I just want sort of an outline of where you want to go to make sure we get that.
Bamford: Yeah, what kind of question you want me to ask.
Snowden: You wouldn’t even necessarily have to ask a question. It would just be—
Snowden: Yeah. It would just be like a segment. I would say people ask how does a cyber-attack happen. People ask what does exploitation on the internet look like, and how do you find out where it came from. Most people nowadays are aware of what IP addresses are, and they know that you shouldn’t send an email from a computer that’s associated with you if you don’t want it to be tracked back to you. You don’t want to hack the power plant from your house if you don’t want them to follow the trail back and see your IP address.
But there are also what are called proxies, proxy servers on the internet, and this is very typical for hackers to use. They create what are called proxy chains where they gain access to a number of different systems around the world, sometimes by hacking these, and they use them as sort of relay boxes. So you’ve got the originator of an attack all the way over here on the other side of the planet in the big orb of the internet, just a giant constellation of network links all around. And then you’ve got their intended victim over here.
But instead of going directly from them to the victim in one straight path where this victim sees the originator, the attacker, was the person who sent the exploit to them, who attacked their system, you’ll see they do something where they zigzag through the internet. They go from proxy to proxy, from country to country around the world, and they use that last proxy, that last step in the chain, to launch the attack.
So while the attack could have actually come from Missouri, an investigator responding to the attack will think it came from the Central African Republic or from the Sudan or from Yemen or from Germany. And the only way to track that back is to hack each of those systems back through the chain or to use mass surveillance techniques to have basically a spy on each one of those links so you can follow the tunnel all the way home.
The more I think about it, the more I think that would be way too complicated to—
Producer: No, I was just watching your hands. That was just filling in the blanks.
Bamford: No, I was, too. That’ll be fine.
Producer: And it’s a good point of how you can automate responses and how you—
Bamford: Yeah, we can just drive in and draw in those zigzags.
Snowden: Right. I mean, yeah, the way I would see it is just sort of like stars, like a constellation of points. And you’ve got different colored paths going between them. And then you just highlight the originator and the victim. And they don’t have to be on the edges. They could even be in the center of the cloud somewhere. And then you have sort of a green line going straight between them, and it turns red when it hacks, but then you see the little police agency follow it back. And then so you put an X on it and you replace it with the zigzag line that’s green, and then it goes red when it attacks, to sort of call it the path.
Bamford: From Missouri to the Central African Republic.
Producer: Are there any other visualizations that you can think of that maybe you see it as an image as opposed to a (multiple conversations; inaudible).
Snowden: I think one of the good ones to do—and you can do it pretty cheaply, even almost funny, like cartoon-like, and sort of like almost a Flash animation, like paper cutouts—would be to help people visualize the problem with the U.S. prioritizing offense over defense is you look at it—and I’ll give a voiceover here.
When you look at the problem of the U.S. prioritizing offense over defense, imagine you have two bank vaults, the United States bank vault and the Bank of China. But the U.S. bank vault is completely full. It goes all the way up to the sky. And the Chinese bank vault or the Russian bank vault of the African bank vault or whoever the adversary of the day is, theirs is only half full or a quarter full or a tenth full.
But the U.S. wants to get into their bank vault. So what they do is they build backdoors into every bank vault in the world. But the problem is their vault, the U.S. bank vault, has the same backdoor. So while we’re sneaking over to China and taking things out of their vault, they’re also sneaking over to the United States and taking things out of our vault. And the problem is, because our vault is full, we have so much more to lose. So in relative terms, we gain much less from breaking into the vaults of others than we do from having others break into our vaults. That’s why it’s much more important for us to be able to defend against foreign attacks than it is to be able to launch successful attacks against foreign adversaries.
You know, just something sort of symbolic and quick that people can instantly visualize.
Producer: The other thing I’d like to put to you, because we have to find somebody to do it, is how do you make a cyber-weapon? What is malware? What is that?
Snowden: When people are talking about malware, what they really mean is—when people are talking about malware, what they—
When people are talking about cyber weapons, digital weapons, what they really mean is a malicious program that’s used for a military purpose. A cyber weapon could be something as simple as an old virus from 1995 that just happens to still be effective if you use it for that purpose.
Custom developed digital weapons, cyber weapons nowadays typically chain together a number of zero-day exploits that are targeted against the specific site, the specific target that they want to hit. But it depends, this level of sophistication, on the budget and the quality of the actor who’s instigating the attack. If it’s a country that’s less poor or less sophisticated, it’ll be a less sophisticated attack.
But the bare bones tools for a cyber-attack are to identify a vulnerability in the system you want to gain access to or you want to subvert or you want to deny, destroy, or degrade, and then to exploit it, which means to send codes, deliver code to that system somehow, whether it’s locally in the physical realm or on the same network or remotely across the internet, across the global network, and get that code to that vulnerability, to that crack in their wall, jam it in there, and then have it execute.
The payload can then be the action, the instructions that you want to execute on that system, which typically, for the purposes of espionage, would be leaving an implant behind to listen in on what they’re doing, but could just as easily be something like the wiper virus that just deletes everything from the machines and turns them off. Really, it comes down to any instructions that you can think of that you would want to execute on that remote system.
Bamford: Along those lines, there’s one area that could really be visualized I think a lot better, and that’s the vulnerabilities. The way I’ve said it a few times but might be good if you thought about it is looking at a bank vault, and then there are these little cracks, and that enables somebody to get into the bank vault. So what the U.S. is doing is cataloguing all those little cracks instead of telling the bank how to correct those cracks. Problem is other people can find those same cracks.
Snowden: Other people can see the same cracks, yeah.
Bamford: And take the money from the bank, in which case the U.S. did a disservice to the customers of the bank, which is the public, by not telling the bank about the cracks in the first place.
Snowden: Yeah, that’s perfect. And another way to do it is not just cracks in the walls, but it could be other ways in. You can show a guy sort of peeking over the wall, you can see a guy tunneling underneath, you can see a guy going through the front door. All of those, in cyber terms, are vulnerabilities, because it’s not that you have to look for one hole of a specific type. It’s the whole paradigm. You look at the totality of their security situation, and you look for any opening by which you might subvert the intent of that system. And you just go from there. There’s a whole world of exploitation, but it goes beyond the depth of the general audience.
Producer: We can just put them all (multiple conversations; inaudible).
Bamford: Any others?
Snowden: One thing, yeah. There were a couple things I wanted to think about. One was man-in-the-middle, a type of attack you should illustrate. It’s routine hacking, but it’s related to CNE specifically, computer network exploitation. But I think in conflating in into cyber warfare helps people understand what it is.
A man-in-the-middle attack is where someone like the NSA, somebody who has access to the transmission medium that you use for communicating, actually subverts your communication. They intercept it, read it, and pass it on, or they intercept it, modify it, and pass it on.
You can imagine this as you put a letter in your mailbox for the postal carrier to pick up and then deliver, but you don’t know that the postal carrier actually took it to the person that you want until they confirm that it happened. The postal carrier could have replaced it with a different letter. They could have opened it. If it was a gift, they could have taken the gift out, things like that.
We have, over time, created global standards of behavior that mean mailmen don’t do that. They’re afraid of the penalties. They’re afraid of getting caught. And we as a society recognize that the value of having trusted means of communication, trusted mail, far outweighs any benefit that we might get from being able to freely tamper with mail. We need those same standards to apply to the internet. We need to be able to trust that when we send our emails through Verizon, that Verizon isn’t sharing with the NSA, that Verizon isn’t sharing them with the FBI or German intelligence or French intelligence or Russian intelligence or Chinese intelligence.
The internet has to be protected from this sort of intrusive monitoring or else the medium upon which we all rely for the basis of our economy and our normal life—everybody touches the internet nowadays—we’ll lose that, and it’s going to have broad effects as a consequence that we cannot predict.
Producer: Terrific. I think we ought to keep going and do like an interactive Edward Snowden kind of app.
Snowden: My lawyer would murder me.
Producer: No, you really—(inaudible) used to give classes.
Snowden: Yeah, I used to teach. It was on a much more specific level, which is why I keep having to dial back and think about it.
Producer: You’re a very clear speaker about it.
Snowden: Let me just one more time do the offense and defense and security thing. I think you guys already have enough to patch it together, but let me just try to freestyle on it.
The community of technical experts who really manage the internet, who built the internet and maintain it, are becoming increasingly concerned about the activities of agencies like the NSA or Cyber Command, because what we see is that defense is becoming less of a priority than offense. There are programs we’ve read about in the press over the last year, such as the NSA paying RSA $10 million to use an insecure encryption standard by default in their products. That’s making us more vulnerable not just to the snooping of our domestic agencies, but also foreign agencies.
We saw another program called Bullrun which subverted the—which subverts—it continues to subvert similar encryption standards that are used for the majority of e-commerce all over the world. You can’t go to your bank and trust that communication if those standards have been weakened, if those standards are vulnerable. And this is resulting in a paradigm where these agencies wield tremendous power over the internet at the price of making the rest of their nation incredibly vulnerable to the same kind of exploitative attacks, to the same sort of mechanisms of cyber-attack.
And that means while we may have a real advantage when it comes to eavesdropping on the military in Syria or trade negotiations over the price of shrimp in Indonesia—which is an actually real anecdote—or even monitoring the climate change conference, it means it results. It means we end up living in an America where we no longer have a National Security Agency. We have a national surveillance agency. And until we reform our laws and until we fix the excesses of these old policies that we inherited in the post-9/11 era, we’re not going to be able to put the security back in the NSA.
Bamford: That’s great. Just along those lines, from what you know about the project Bullrun and so forth, how secure do you think things like AES, DES, those things are, the advanced encryption standard?
Snowden: I don’t actually want to respond to that one on camera, and the answer is I actually don’t know. But yeah, so let’s leave that one.
Bamford: I mean, that would have been the idea to weaken it.
Snowden: Right. The idea would be to weaken it, but which standards? Like is it AES? Is it the other ones? DES was actually stronger than we thought it was at the time because the NSA had secretly manipulated the standard to make it stronger back in the day, which was weird, but that shows the difference in thinking between the ’80s and the ’90s. It was the S-boxes. That’s what it was called. The S-boxes was the modification made. And today, where they go, oh, this is too strong, let’s weaken it. The NSA was actually concerned back in the time of the crypto-wars with improving American security. Nowadays, we see that their priority is weakening our security, just so they have a better chance of keeping an eye on us.
Bamford: Right, well, I think that’s perfect. So why don’t we just do the—
Producer: Would you like some coffee? Something to drink?
Bamford: Yeah, we can get something from room service, if you like.
Snowden: I actually only drink water. That was one of the funniest things early on. Mike Hayden, former NSA CIA director, was—he did some sort of incendiary speech—
Bamford: Oh, I know what you’re going to say, yeah.
Snowden: —in like a church in D.C., and Barton Gellman was there. He was one of the reporters. It was funny because he was talking about how I was—everybody in Russia is miserable. Russia is a terrible place. And I’m going to end up miserable and I’m going to be a drunk and I’m never going to do anything. I don’t drink. I’ve never been drunk in my life. And they talk about Russia like it’s the worst place on earth. Russia’s great.
Bamford: Like Stalin is still in charge.
Snowden: Yeah, I know. It’s crazy.
Bamford: But you know what he was referring to, I think. You know what he was flashing back to was—and I’d be curious whether you’ve actually heard about this or not—
Snowden: Philby and Burgess and—
Bamford: Martin and Mitchel.
Snowden: I actually don’t remember the Martin and Mitchell case that well. I’m aware of the outlines of it.
Bamford: But you know what they did?