Hidden Agendas, Part One: Snowden, The Intercept & the Pentagon-spawned internet privacy movement

This post is part of a two-part series. Read Part Two on Wikileaks and its relation with the Trump media complex here.

A rather prominent theme in the news the past half decade (and particularly the past couple years) has been computer hacking and government document leaks, ranging from Wikileaks to supposed Russian hacking to Snowden/NSA leaks to a constant barrage of stories fearmongering over the alleged vulnerability of critical infrastructures to being hacked by North Korea, ISIS, Russia, or whatever other bogeyman happens to be the flavor of the day. As with pretty much anything else, coverage of supposed heroic renegade hactivists, whistleblowers and leakers is full of half-truths and subtle yet critical omissions and behind every accusation and every ostensibly “pro-transparency” leak and internet privacy advocacy outfit is a hidden agenda and several layers of intrigue that must be carefully dissected.

Edward Snowden is, in large part, the foundational myth upon which the whistleblower and internet privacy communities are based and has spawned or mainstreamed a menagerie of “pro-transparency” and internet privacy advocacy organizations and media outlets. Sure, many existed pre-Snowden, but Snowden popularized the issue and propelled many of today’s preeminent leak outlets (most notably The Intercept) into the mainstream as well as promoted (government compromised and likely partially backdoored) internet privacy tools such as Tor to the wider population. But before discussing legacy spook involvement in internet privacy, it’s important to establish some of the reasons why the Snowden story simply doesn’t add up and why the Snowden revelations were likely a limited hangout operation intended to lure those concerned with institutionalized electronic eavesdropping into honeypots, among other reasons.

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Snowden, with Electronic Frontier Foundation and Tor stickers on his laptop

Snowden’s background and story are filled with incongruities and inconsistencies and he clearly exaggerated his role in intelligence and intelligence contractor circles – he claimed to have been an ‘infrastructure analyst’ and ‘chief technologist’ conjuring up methods of working around electronic security systems, but the core of his work was as a less than glorious system administrator, of which there are about 1,000 employed by or contracted out by the NSA (meaning that about 1 in 40 NSA employees are system administrators). Despite this, a general picture can be sussed out. He was born into a family of lifelong federal government and military employees and lived near to NSA headquarters at Fort Meade throughout most of his childhood and adolescence. Perhaps this family background explains how Snowden was able to, early in his life, land highly technical jobs that typically require at least a 4-year degree and a decent amount of relevant experience without either. Snowden had muddled and cavalier political views and attitudes – he displayed some libertarian tendencies, supported Ron Paul’s economic policies and virulently despised Barack Obama, in particular his action to place “a politician” in charge of the CIA (referring to Leon Panetta). He was active on Arstechnica’s forums from 2001 through 2012, where he, on top of having generally been “a dick”, exhibited at least up until 2009 strong support for the national security apparatus, American covert operations in the Middle East (particularly Iran) and at one point claimed that leakers “should be shot in the balls.”[1][2] This is all in clear contradiction to the restrained, highly tailored rhetoric wherein he vaunted the practice of whistlelowing and the polished, refined persona Snowden began putting out in 2013, indicating some kind of deception (i.e., putting on an act) and perhaps coaching.

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This kind of blatant PR campaign was never put on by the mainstream press for NSA leakers who’d previously exposed almost everything contained in the Snowden documents.

This isn’t to say that Snowden was fully aware of the entire scheme, in fact he may have had pure intentions and perhaps did on his own accord begin collecting documents to leak, but was discovered and compromised at some point along the way and brought into a limited hangout operation. It’s rather hard to believe that, having been downloading top secret documents onto flash drives for over year, Snowden could have gotten away with what he did without ever being caught. As a system administrator at both Dell (which has an NSA contracting division) and Booz Allen, Snowden had elevated privileges beyond that of your average analyst – he had root access to whichever systems he worked on as well as the NSA’s intranet (it’s internal communications network separate from the internet). However, this doesn’t fully explain how Snowden accessed and exfiltrated everything he did. In order to gain access to documents in systems he didn’t have access to, Snowden allegedly convinced other NSA contractors to give him their system user passwords, giving him access to their self-signed SSH/secure shell certificates (SSH is a network cryptographic and security protocol that essentially authenticates users), after which he was able to combine them with his own fabricated SSH keys to successfully exfiltrate the documents.[3] [4]

This is a possible (but still somewhat doubtful in the context of the NSA) explanation for how Snowden gained access to the documents, but further problems arise when you consider the fact that this highly illegal activity was going on for over a year at two different employers and that Snowden was regularly downloading documents onto flash storage and taking them out of his building. The NSA doesn’t rely only on passwords and network security protocols to keep data secure. It also employs highly sophisticated threat detection systems and software (in addition to human supervisors) that monitor and analyze file storage and network traffic, detecting anomalous patterns indicating suspicious behavior (which surely includes downloading large amounts of data onto flash storage, irregular SSH certs, failed login attempts, etc.).[5] All of this indicates that Snowden’s stealing of documents was perhaps sanctioned and facilitated by some higher authority, or that his entire story was simply fabricated and that all of the documents were preloaded for him by someone else. Or, perhaps, Snowden was conveniently reassigned by the NSA to a location (Hawaii) where the latest in threat detection software was allegedly not installed so that he could more easily get away with what he did. This could merely be an excuse thought up by the NSA’s PR team, and you would still have to account for how Snowden was able to get away with downloading tens of thousands of documents while in Maryland in early 2012 before he moved to Hawaii, but it’s still worth considering nonetheless.

After obtaining leave from work under the guise of getting epilepsy treatment, Snowden fled to Hong Kong (of all places to flee the US government from) where he worked with Glenn Greenwald and The Guardian in releasing the first tranche of documents as well as filming the documentary Citizenfour. In Hong Kong, Snowden instructed his lawyers to reach out to Wikileaks – another problematic leak outlet which will be discussed later – which was responsible for obtaining special refugee papers for Snowden, knowing he would likely end up a stateless person. Sarah Harrison, Julian Assange’s top aide, was dispatched to Hong Kong to interface with Snowden and Greenwald & associates. Harrison accompanied Snowden on his flight to Moscow from Hong Kong, which Snowden only boarded because the US government curiously waited to revoke his passport until he had already left the somewhat cooperative Hong Kong for Moscow on June 22, two weeks after he had come out as The Guardian’s source.[6]

By far the most telling aspect of the Snowden case is the anomalous treatment he received from the media – firstly, the utterly enormous deluge of coverage and free advertising Snowden received from the mainstream media is in complete contradiction with how the press treated previous legitimate whistleblowers such as Tom Drake, William Binney, etc. Not only that, but a chorus of support rang out for Snowden – he was exalted by much of the press and propelled into celebrity status, and this positive coverage easily drowned out the shrill cries of right-wing national security boosters to hang Snowden in the middle of Times Square. This exceptional media treatment of Snowden is probably the most suspicious part of the Snowden narrative and very strongly suggests that there is more than meets the eye with this far-fetched character.

Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay.
The geeky-looking and innocent-presenting Pierre Omidyar. This is a pattern seen in many closetedly politically astute and connected tech billionaires.

Snowden’s collaborators in the media who have been responsible for the methodical, staggered release of the leaked documents are even more questionable than Snowden himself. Glenn Greenwald, who allegedly initially turned Snowden down because he couldn’t be bothered to communicate with Snowden over encrypted email, later came crawling back to him after Snowden contacted filmmaker Laura Poitras. Greenwald, in league with Snowden, is releasing documents at a glacial pace (first and foremost to milk them for all the ad revenue they’re worth). Many of these documents have been published through The Intercept, Greenwald’s joint venture with the reticent national security apparatus connected billionaire and eBay founder, Pierre Omidyar. Omidyar, through his Omidyar Network (which is essentially a lobbying effort seeking political influence), provides funding for The Intercept as well as many other ostensible internet privacy and government whistleblower support groups, such as the Freedom of the Press Foundation, First Look Media and the Electronic Frontier Foundation and actively facilitates overseas USAID ventures, most notably aiding it in funding revolutionary Ukrainian groups prior to the 2014 overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych. Omidyar frequented the Obama White House, clocking in more (official) visits than even Warren Buffet or Google’s Eric Schmidt and only one less visit than alt media phantasm, George Soros.[7]

Omidyar and his network (and therefore Greenwald indirectly) have several worrying connections to Snowden’s former employer, Booz Allen Hamilton. The first are through Globant, a Latin American software development outsourcing firm, and Innocentive, a Massachusetts-based contract R&D firm:

Sal Gambianco, one of the principal investment partners with the Omidyar Network, actually sits on the board of advisors of Globant, a software company in which both the Omidyar Network and Booz Allen Hamilton, Snowden’s former employer, are major shareholders. Philip Odeen, one of the Booz Allen Hamilton board members, also sits on the Board of Directors of Globant. The Omidyar Network and Booz Allen Hamilton are also both major investors in Innocentive.[8]

Omidyar’s Hawaiian venture capital fund, the Ulupono Initiative, which regularly hosts defense contractor expos in Hawaii, lists a former Booz Allen vice president as a general partner. As if it couldn’t get any more incestuous, in 2015, one of Edward Snowden’s former bosses (a director at Booz Allen’s Hawaii branch where Snowden was previously employed) was named an Omidyar Fellow.[9]

The above information comports with a generalized pattern of government/military development and financing of internet privacy technology and tools. Many today are aware of Silicon Valley and the technology industry’s concert with the national security/defense apparatus as well as the fact that much of the industry and the technology it is founded upon were seeded in military/defense research labs and/or funded and loosely directed in some way by government. The most instructive example today is probably Google, which originated as a Department of Defense directed and funded data mining project, received significant funding from the DoD in its early years as a company and to this day remains a multi billion dollar intelligence contractor and collaborator in government research (although Google’s PR team has made sure to keep this for the most part obscured). Seemingly every single major technology company has at one point consulted with, received funding from or adopted executives or researchers from the Pentagon (DARPA most often), In-Q-Tel (the CIA’s venture capital arm) or the Highlands Forum (the Pentagon’s unofficial, highly secretive technology think tank). This of course all flies in the face of the trendy, funky and pure image the technology industry has fostered – behind the smokescreen of bean bag chairs, free-spirited dresscodes, organic lunches, pro-privacy tokenism and free market innovation overtones and innuendo is something quite sinister.

For an in-depth analysis of the relationship between the technology sector (in particular Google) and the intelligence & defense communities, read Nafeez Ahmed’s excellent, comprehensive two-part series:

Part 1

Part 2

However, fewer are aware of the intelligence community’s bolstering of popular internet privacy advocacy groups and anonymity tools, in financial, engineering/development and advertising capacities. The most glaring example is anonymous communications network Tor, which is endlessly promulgated by Edward Snowden, who admitted to running multiple Tor exit nodes while at the NSA. A Tor sticker is displayed prominently on his laptop, and, bizarrely, while in Hawaii in the process of stealing a trove of top secret documents, Snowden contacted a Tor developer in an attempt to get more of his NSA colleagues to begin setting up their own personal Tor nodes.

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Visual depiction of how the Tor network and onion routing work – as traffic flows through each Tor node, an encryption layer (analogous to a layer of an onion) is decrypted and stripped away

The NSA, GCHQ, FBI and probably many other intelligence entities throughout the globe run a significant portion of Tor nodes and in particular exit nodes, which fully decrypt traffic after it’s been circuitously routed through the Tor network, giving them the capability to potentially infer through web request information and other traffic (such as that of targeted servers) the IP address that the request came from (thus defeating the purpose of Tor) as well as the ability to stage man-in-the-middle attacks to compromise passwords. Through statistical analysis/traffic correlation, intelligence agencies and even academic researchers running fake (or, in the NSA’s case more likely compromised) websites/servers and observing the traffic exiting the Tor network have been able to determine at a very high rate of success the beginning and endpoints at which traffic flows through the Tor network, thus compromising anonymity. Tor is known to be totally defenseless against adversaries observing and correlating traffic entering and exiting the Tor network, a capability the NSA very often has given the fact that it runs a significant number of Tor nodes, has compromised many websites/servers and internet users, and taps virtually every major internet exchange point – all of these are a rich source of traffic to analyze and correlate, making it that much easier. And it’s not just the NSA and GCHQ Tor should be worried about – part of the FBI’s Silk Road operation included taking complete control of a server run in the Tor cloud, something Tor claims is impossible to do.[10] [11] [12] [13]

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Visual representation of how Tor can be compromised through traffic analysis

Curious then that Edward Snowden vigorously proselytizes an anonymity tool that he must know the NSA has at least partially compromised even according to one of the documents he leaked. (Although I, for one, am skeptical of the veracity of some of the documents for the reasons above.) The NSA itself suggests that it would be “counterproductive” if Tor were to be discouraged because it concentrates many of its targets into one convenient pot. After this document was authored, a fishy former NSA contractor comes out ceaselessly promoting Tor without cautioning his audience that it doesn’t in the slightest guarantee end-to-end anonymity and is not an end-to-end encryption protocol. Additionally, according to a German expose, the NSA exploits the existence Tor and another anonymity tools and networks by tracking near everyone who downloads the software in order to more efficiently narrow down a range of targets.

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Source: NSA Tor Stinks presentation

Tor in fact originated as a mid-90s Naval Research Laboratory project that intended to prevent assorted intelligence and law enforcement operatives from being unmasked while using the internet (i.e., providing cover for intelligence gathering as well as for deployed agents accessing the internet). In 2002, two MIT graduates on contract from DARPA and the US Naval Research Laboratory came on board and spawned what is today known as Tor and were responsible for expanding its size and scope and therefore its use beyond spooks to foreign agents, hackers, activists, drug dealers, child pornographers, terrorists, etc. Not only did it cloak American intelligence operatives using the internet, it also became a veritable honeypot. Later, in the mid-2000s, Naval Research officially disassociated itself from Tor and handed its management over to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which proceeded along with Tor’s developers to omit and downplay Tor’s origins and original intended use and instead quite literally marketed it as an online anonymity tool for anti-surveillance digital crusaders.[14]

“I forgot to mention earlier something that will make you look at me in a new light. I contract for the United States Government to built anonymity technology for them and deploy it. They don’t think of it as anonymity technology, although we use that term. They think of it as security technology. They need these technologies so they can research people they are interested in, so they can have anonymous tip lines, so that they can buy things from people without other countries knowing what they are buying, how much they are buying and where it is going, that sort of thing.” – Roger Dingledine, principal Tor developer

To this day, Tor (as well as dozens of other trendy anonymity apps and tools such as CryptoCat and Open Whisper Systems) is almost entirely funded by the defense-surveillance apparatus (100% if you count Google as part of that apparatus) and therefore all of its employees and developers work indirectly for the national security state. Among its underwriters include the DoD/Pentagon, State Department, Google, Stanford Research Institute (a Pentagon satellite institution) and the Broadcasting Board of Governors, a CIA spin-off and successor to the former official US propaganda agency, the USIA of Radio Free Asia and Radio Free Europe infamy. The BGG is primarily involved in funding the counterfeit internet privacy marketing infrastructure through organizations like the Freedom of the Press Foundation, which works round-the-clock to promote tools like Tor and foster its pro-privacy image and was, interestingly enough, founded the very same week Edward Snowden emailed Glenn Greenwald for the intent purpose of funding Wikileaks.[15] [16]

“The original *QUESTION* posed that led to the invention of Onion Routing was, “Can we build a system that allows for bi-directional communications over the Internet where the source and destination cannot be determined by a mid-point?” The *PURPOSE* was for DoD / Intelligence usage (open source intelligence gathering, covering of forward deployed assets, whatever). Not helping dissidents in repressive countries. Not assisting criminals in covering their electronic tracks. Not helping bit-torrent users avoid MPAA/RIAA prosecution. Not giving a 10 year old a way to bypass an anti-porn filter. Of course, we knew those would be other unavoidable uses for the technology, but that was immaterial to the problem at hand we were trying to solve (and if those uses were going to give us more cover traffic to better hide what we wanted to use the network for, all the better…I once told a flag officer that much to his chagrin).” – Michael Reed, an inventor of “onion routing”

A critical link between the Tor-Pentagon-Snowden nexus and Wikileaks is Jacob Appelbaum, a Tor developer whose salary is provided by Pentagon and State Department grants and travels the world giving Tor-centered anonymity training sessions to pro-Western “activists” and officials in repressive states such as Qatar, yet brands himself as a punk rock hactivist rebel. Appelbaum has been an important ambassador between the Tor-Snowden camp and Wikileaks and an important Wikileaks volunteer – he’s vigorously promoted Wikileaks as he’s traveled the world giving speeches and presentations in addition to aiding it in installing Tor technology on its servers.

Appelbaum spends much of each year leading Tor training sessions around the world, often conducted in secrecy to protect activists whose lives are in danger. Some, like the sex-worker advocates from Southeast Asia he tutored, had limited knowledge of computers. Others, like a group of students Appelbaum trained at a seminar in Qatar, are highly sophisticated: One worked on the government’s censorship network, another works for a national oil company, and a third created an Al-Jazeera message board that allows citizens to post comments anonymously.[17]

Given that the Snowden leaks didn’t really reveal much that we didn’t already know from William Binney, Tom Drake, James Bamford as well as whistleblowers from other agencies and exposes from the ’70s onward about the “Five Eyes”/ECHELON comprehensive electronic surveillance network – Snowden’s contribution was largely revealing meaninglessly broad technicalities, a few impressive special purpose NSA toys, and putting official internal names to the NSA’s activities, most of which had already been exposed and were already known by those interested. So, how materially damaging apart from a medium-term PR crisis the Snowden leaks was to the NSA and surveillance state is debatable (if anything, it instilled a sense of awe in people over its technical capabilities). So, perhaps the NSA/DoD permitted and controlled the Snowden leak so as to lure more people (read: targets) into using a basket of Pentagon-compromised, spook-funded trendy anonymity tools, most notably Tor, and away from legitimate anonymity tools and more conventional (and typically safer) VPN technology. If it’s true, as is suspected, that the intelligence community has indeed totally or even partially compromised most anonymity tools (Tor, VPN, etc.) as well as encryption protocols, then Snowden’s purpose could have been to manipulate its target base into adopting these compromised technologies to more easily trace targets through the use of these tools and assemble them in one convenient location. Of course, it’s one thing to determine that a story is fishy or that critical information is being withheld, but an entirely different thing to determine why deception is occurring – we can only theorize as to why it is and come up with our own conjecture.

The second part of this series covers Wikileaks, the media and their relationship with Donald Trump.

Notes:

[1] In 2009, Ed Snowden said leakers “should be shot.” Then he became one

https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2013/06/exclusive-in-2009-ed-snowden-said-leakers-should-be-shot-then-he-became-one/3/

[2] Edward Snowden

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Snowden

[3] How did Snowden do it?

http://www.darkreading.com/attacks-breaches/how-did-snowden-do-it/d/d-id/1140877?

[4] How Snowden did it.

http://www.nbcnews.com/news/other/how-snowden-did-it-f8C11003160

[5] Closer look at Snowden’s NSA caper

https://www.usatoday.com/story/cybertruth/2013/11/19/a-specific-theory-on-how-snowden-cracked-the-nsa/3640043/#

[6] How Snowden Escaped

Exclusive: How Edward Snowden Escaped

[7] Revealed: Visitor logs show full extent of Pierre and Pamela Omidyar’s cozy White House ties

https://pando.com/2014/03/23/revealed-visitor-logs-show-full-extent-of-pierre-and-pamela-omidyars-cozy-white-house-ties/

[8] Secrets for Sale?: The Greenwald/Omidyar/NSA connection

https://www.corbettreport.com/secrets-for-sale-the-greenwaldomidyarnsa-connection/

[9] What the hell? Pierre Omidyar selects one of Edward Snowden’s former Booz Allen bosses to be an Omidyar Fellow

https://pando.com/2015/10/16/pierre-omidyar-taps-edward-snowdens-former-boss-be-omidyar-fellow/

[10] Silk Road bust hints at FBI’s new cybercrime powers

https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn24345-silk-road-bust-hints-at-fbis-new-cybercrime-powers/?full=true

[11] How the NSA (Or Anyone Else) Can Crack Tor’s Anonymity

https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/4x3qnj/how-the-nsa-or-anyone-else-can-crack-tors-anonymity

[12] Users Get Routed: Traffic Correlation on Tor by Realistic Adversaries

http://www.dtic.mil/docs/citations/ADA602282

[13] Can you trust Tor’s exit nodes?

Can you trust Tor’s exit nodes?

[14] Almost Everyone Involved in Developing Tor was (or is) Funded by the US Government

https://pando.com/2014/07/16/tor-spooks/

[15] Internet privacy, funded by spooks: A brief history of the BBG

https://pando.com/2015/03/01/internet-privacy-funded-by-spooks-a-brief-history-of-the-bbg/

[16] Hall of Mirrors: Wikileaks volunteer helped build Tor, was funded by the Pentagon

https://pando.com/2014/07/22/hall-of-mirrors-wikileaks-volunteer-helped-build-tor-was-funded-by-the-pentagon/

[17] The American Wikileaks Hacker

http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/meet-the-american-hacker-behind-wikileaks-20101201?print=true

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