The NSA, Snowden and the Internet’s Offensive Future

Whatever your feelings are about Snowden, listening to him speak about why he did what he did, what he hoped to accomplish and how he feels about the public reaction is informative.

Despite everything that has transpired in the last year, Edward Snowden sounded calm, reflective and in some ways wistful yesterday discussing the fallout and consequences of the multitude of NSA programs and methods he’s revealed. Snowden bemoaned the fact that the NSA specifically and the intelligence community in general have shifted its focus to offensive operations, implying that defense should be focus. But now that those agencies have the tremendous offensive powers they’ve accumulated in the last decade, they’re never giving them back.

Whatever your feelings are about Snowden, listening to him speak about why he did what he did, what he hoped to accomplish and how he feels about the public reaction is informative. He spoke Monday for about an hour from an undisclosed location in Moscow and, while he touched on many subjects, Snowden returned several times to the idea that the NSA and other government agencies have hijacked the Internet for their own purposes, all in the name of protecting us from…something.

“The result has been an adversarial Internet, a global free-fire zone for governments. This is a global issue. They’re setting fire to the Internet,” Snowden said during a discussion at the South By Southwest conference.

In one sense he’s correct. Governments around the world are indeed using the Internet as a platform for offensive operations against foreign governments, terrorist groups and, in some cases, their own citizens. They’re hoarding zero-day vulnerabilities, developing sophisticated malware and building entire catalogs of hardware tools that can compromise every conceivable communications platform. Those are simply the facts. And the NSA is at the forefront of these operations. One part of the agency’s mission is to conduct offensive cyber operations against foreign targets, and the NSA is as good as it gets in that game.

“If you’re a target of the NSA, it’s game over no matter what,” said Chris Soghoian of the ACLU, who participated in the Snowden discussion.

That’s the part of the NSA’s mission that Snowden’s disclosures have centered on, the amazing technical capabilities and the large-scale surveillance programs. But Snowden said Monday that one of the big problems at the agency, where he worked as a contractor, is that the focus on offense has come at the expense of defense, which is the second half of the NSA’s mission. The agency is charged with defending the country’s electronic communications against foreign intruders, but Snowden argues that NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander and his predecessor, Michael Hayden, made a conscious choice to minimize that mission in the years after 9/11.

“It was Michael Hayden and Keith Alexander in the post-9/11 era who made a very specific change. They elevated offensive operations over the defense of our communications,” he said. “This is a problem because America has more to lose than anyone else when an attack succeeds. It doesn’t make sense for you to be attacking all day and never defending your vault.”

But what Snowden didn’t say is that it was Congress who continued to hand new capabilities to the NSA–indeed it was eager to do so as part of the massive ramp-up of anti-terror programs after 2001. The Section 215 metadata and Section 702 intelligence-gathering provisions in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and USA PATRIOT Act, respectively, have given the NSA unprecedented ability to vacuum up massive amounts of data, and advances in technology have provided the capability to store and search that data for decades to come. And the deep bench of technical talent the agency has amassed has given it the ability to develop a wish list of spy tools, exploits and implants to do the targeted work that mass surveillance doesn’t accomplish.

Given those abilities, and more importantly, the legal authority to use them, the NSA is, of course, going to do so. If you have a Ferrari, you don’t leave it sitting in the garage, you drive the hell out of it. Technology advances, regardless of our desire for it to slow down sometimes, and, as Bruce Schneier often says, attacks only get better, not worse. And the NSA is the apex predator of this environment. The agency hasn’t abandoned its defensive mission, not by a long shot, but offense is sexy and provides tangible results to show the higher-ups.

Offense is the present and it’s also the future. And, to borrow a phrase, the future will retire undefeated.

Image from Flickr photos of Tim Lucas

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