Long-Term Effects of the Snowden Saga on the NSA

More than a few of my previous posts reference a very important, but often ignored, observation about the behavior of large human systems. It can be briefly stated as:

The responses of large human systems to small injuries almost always amplifies the damage caused by said injuries, and frequently results in the development of hitherto non-existent pathologies.

So how is this observation playing out in the aftermath of the Snowden saga? Let us begin by going through what has occurred to date and what will almost certainly occur in the near future.

Yesterday, we learned that the NSA, and probably all the private contractors employed by it, have begun implementing a ‘two person rule‘. They are trying to convince the rest of the world that such a rule would stop the ‘next’ Snowden.

The rule required that anyone copying data from a secure network onto portable storage media does so with a second person who ensures he or she isn’t also collecting unauthorized data.

Now, this rule might sound comforting to retards and other people without any background in IT or computing. They might believe that such a rule could prevent something like what Snowden did from happening again. But it won’t- as any person with a reasonably devious mind, a couple of years in the organisation and ‘sys admin’ level access could do exactly what Snowden did without breaking any rules or policies. But also ask yourself.. why was such a “common sense” sounding rule not implemented in the first place?

The answer is two-fold. The first and most obvious reason is that it is inconvenient, costly and not particularly effective against a determined insider like Snowden. The second and less obvious, but more important, reason is that organisations lacking a certain level of internal trust among its members are unable to function properly. To be extra clear- I am not saying that such trust-less organisations cannot function well enough to exist or appear somewhat competent. My implication is that they are cannot operate at anywhere near the level that they advertise or is expected of them.

To put it another way, the NSA and its contractors are now going to be spending a lot of their abilities, time, energy on hunting moles in a manner that will cause considerable inconveniences, cost overruns and lowered internal morale.

Which brings us to the next major long-term effect of the Snowden saga. How can they identify others like Snowden who are already employed by the NSA or its many contractors? How can they stop hiring people who are like Snowden or could become the ‘next’ Snowden? Can they profile people who are like Snowden and, more importantly, at what cost?

I believe they will do all of the above and it is these actions, rather than anything that Snowden leaked, which will ultimately cause the most damage to the long-term functionality of the NSA. Here is how..

Ask yourself a simple question: Is there anything about Snowden that makes him odd, unusual or otherwise profile-able? The simple answer is- NO! There is really nothing atypical, unusual or particularly odd about Snowden. He successfully passed multiple intensive security checks, had no criminal record of significance, exhibited no evidence of especially radical beliefs and had no evidence of financial problems. Sure, he could be a bit of a snarky elitist with some libertarian-type beliefs- but that is the pretty much the standard personality profile of competent people in IT and computer programming.

The scariest part of the Snowden saga is that he was pretty mainstream, as far as people in his area of work are concerned.

But that is not going to stop the administration-type people who run NSA or its numerous subcontractors from trying to identify the ‘next’ Snowden. However, in doing so they will also end up harassing and driving out the most competent people, in addition to not recruiting any more of them. They will end retaining and hiring more docile ‘yes-men’, office-smart bullshitters, cunning courtiers and all the other types who look good on paper and talk the talk. Unfortunately almost none of these ‘team-players’ will be capable, competent or innovative enough to get things done properly. Consequently the operational ability of the organisation and overall system will suffer and the end result will be not unlike the iconic scene from the Wizard of Oz is exposed as an old circus carnie manipulating a few levers and dials.

What do you think? Comments?

  1. June 18, 2013 at 6:47 pm

    Pretty good summary but I think that you haven’t seen the worst of it yet. This was a serious injury to the NSA and the ego of those in charge will not be salved by a mere “two person” rule, that is just the start and the one that they are admitting to the public. Trust me the new rules of operation within the NSA will be far more restrictive than this. Not really sure what they’ll be but more than likely an extreme compartmentalization in sensitive information, cumbersome tracking and audit requirements whenever accessing sensitive data and much more intrusive vetting of people that have access along with very draconian punishments for very minor breaking of rules. It will not be fun to work there for the next few years that’s for sure.

    But in the long run I view this as incredibly damaging to the NSA’s ability to collect information OUTSIDE of the US (inside it is already obvious there will be no substantial changes to what they are doing, it will be business as usual). Any country worth their salt is going to start shutting down the NSA’s access and plugging up backdoors. You would have to be insane to still use US based products in any sensitive areas (read all government functions) so say goodbye to Microsoft Windows and hello to Linux. Also good luck to Cisco and Juniper selling more routers to any country that can make their own or buy from a country not heavily influenced by the US. The list goes on, hardware like Apple or Dell and software of all sorts will be looked at like poison. Hell even Intel and AMD processors may have been compromised and certainly they’ll be demanding assurances that banking transactions and other sensitive communications does not go through US based centers. Germany is calling the NSA as being worse than the East German Stasi which is a good gauge as to how other world leaders view this. They will work over the next few years very hard at closing out the US from this type of access and will most likely succeed to one degree or another.

    Sadly I think that Snowden wasted his time and life releasing this information as it will change nothing internal to the US (and in fact most people I talk to, if they are aware of this, DO NOT CARE). No what Snowden did was very damaging to our ability to collect data outside of the US. So what will the NSA do? most likely concentrate even more on collecting US data now as it will be far easier to do than getting data outside of the US. Also, as other sites are saying this data will be used in the near future, one to identify and eliminate political enemies (not only to kill necessarily but destroy via IRS audits and other means) and to look for tax cheats and other possible sources of money for our ever more in debt USG.

    I know.. and that is necessary to make the system fall on itself.

  2. P Ray
    June 18, 2013 at 9:05 pm

    As it is, in most companies your colleagues are your competitors.
    Also, how much was the US Government getting overcharged by Booz Allen Hamilton for what was essentially very entry-level stuff?
    Maybe the hillbillies had something right:
    If you’re not blood-kin or sworn friend, you’re no different from a stranger.

  3. Webe
    June 19, 2013 at 2:34 am

    The most important part of the story is not the damage to the NSA or any revelations of spying and backdoors. The most important angle is that these institutions can no longer run on the good faith of individuals within them, because they no longer believe…
    Solzhenitsyn noted that all that is necessary for the regime to fall is that everybody openly admit that the other no longer believes in it any more either: then it will have ceased to exist. This kind of lack of conviction has been eating away at western societies for generations. Bright young people drop out or veer from possibly successful career paths. Politics and speeches (especially graduation convocations) are full of nice words that do no correspond to people’s inner reality. The institutions at the core of our society are no longer carried by people who really believe they stand for something good.

    As for the intelligence gathering: of course the NSA has backdoors to all kinds of hardware that decrypts encrypted instructions sets or data. All this spying has been an open secret for at least a decade and a half, it’s just that now there is some (more) concrete evidence in the public sphere.

    What truly undermines the effectivness of any intelligence or military institution is rigorous selection for the “right” mind set. This de facto rules out any kind of creative intelligence at the outset. The heart of intelligence is debate and the clash of different ideas and hypothesis.

  4. IamMarktoo
    June 19, 2013 at 12:43 pm

    Prefer something more conspiratorial when it comes to those “that play with fire”. However, this hack seems more measured than any so far. Can’t seem to paste a link so you’ll have to go to spiked: humanity is underated and find it yourself. Here’s a sample
    “But there’s something else going on here that neither an army of tech experts poring over the rather vapid PowerPoint presentation or another 24 hours preparing the story would have mitigated. For the real precondition for the inaccuracies and hyperbole which crept into the reports was not a technical or procedural failure; rather, it was a willingness on the part of the reporters and their editors to believe that this is what the state, be it American or British, is really like. Snowden’s leaked PowerPoint slides fitted the pre-existing narrative. That is, the state is intent on abolishing our privacy, it does want to know everything about us, it is Big Brother. The wilful credulity of the likes of Greenwald, their unshakeable belief that Western governments are involved in a conspiracy against the people, meant that they were never going to ask the right questions of a bunch of top secret slides which implied that, yes, the state is conspiring against you from inside your inbox.”

  5. June 22, 2013 at 4:30 pm

    When you review the history of espionage and counter-espionage, and see the extent of their complex intermingling, to the very highest levels of both, (for example, at British MI6, the Kim Philby defection (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kim_Philby) one has to conclude these sorts of events do not cause the systems to fall in on themselves. These are systems of anti-production, they build out of some insane need of the system to negatively feed off its own production, unproductively.

    This is not a defection, it is something quite different and in many ways unprecedented.

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