(Updated: July 4, 2023)

To mark the 10-year anniversary of the start of the Snowden revelations I will look back at some of the most notable disclosures and how they developed, based upon the most recent books and the numerous blog posts I have written here. Still, it should be noted that this overview is not a complete coverage of this wide-ranging topic.


Books and archives

Between June 2013 and May 2019, the Snowden revelations resulted in over 200 press reports and more than 1200 classified documents published in full or in part. Additionally, The Intercept published 2148 editions of the NSA’s internal newsletter SIDtoday. In total, that may be well over 5000 pages.

A collection that allows a useful visual recognition of the documents was found on the private website IC Off the Record, while text searches are possible at the Snowden Archive which is a collaboration between Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) and the University of Toronto. A private collection of the documents is also available at GitHub.

There are also at least 12 books about the Snowden revelations. Glenn Greenwald’s No Place To Hide from 2014 reads like a pamphlet against perceived mass surveillance. A much more factual overview can be found in Der NSA Komplex, which is also published in 2014 and written by two journalists from Der Spiegel, but unfortunately only available in German.

Detailed insights into the political and legal background of the NSA’s collection programs are provided in Timothy Edgar’s Beyond Snowden from 2017, which is in contrast to Snowden’s own memoir Permanent Record from 2019, which leaves more questions than answers.

Finally, there’s also the long-awaited book Dark Mirror by Washington Post journalist Barton Gellman, which was published in 2020 and offers some important new angles to the initial stories told by Snowden and Greenwald.


Incentives

Some people assume that Snowden is a spy who worked for Russian intelligence, but nowadays, requests for information come from transparency activists as well. Wikileaks’ wiki-page titled The Most Wanted Leaks of 2009 may have inspired Manning to search for information on SIPRNet and to download hundreds of thousands of military and diplomatic reports.

Likewise, the incentive for Snowden may have come from the news program Democracy Now!, in which on April 20, 2012, former NSA crypto-mathematician Bill Binney, documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras and hacktivist Jacob Appelbaum were interviewed by Amy Goodman (a full transcript can be found here).

In the program, Binney claimed that after 9/11 “all the wraps came off for NSA, and they decided to eliminate the protections on U.S. citizens and collect on domestically”.

Appelbaum repeated what he said at the HOPE conference in 2010: “I feel that people like Bill need to come forward to talk about what the U.S. government is doing, so that we can make informed choices as a democracy” – which is exactly what Snowden would do: leaking documents because “the public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong.”

Later that day, Binney and Appelbaum spoke at a “Surveillance Teach-In” in the Whitney Museum, where Appelbaum emphasized that disclosing secret information is also important for privacy and civil liberties organizations: because of a lack of hard evidence and concrete harm it was almost impossible for them to fight NSA surveillance in court.




Binney and Appelbaum at the Surveillance Teach-In on April 20, 2012


Just a month earlier, Snowden had started a new job as a SharePoint systems administrator at the NSA’s regional cryptologic center in the Kunia Tunnel complex in Hawaii. There, he began automating his tasks to free up time for something more interesting, which he describes in Permanent Record:

“I want to emphasize this: my active searching out of NSA abuses began not with the copying of documents, but with the reading of them. My initial intention was just to confirm the suspicions that I’d first had back in 2009 in Tokyo. Three years later I was determined to find out if an American system of mass surveillance existed and, if it did, how it functioned.” *

With this, Snowden basically admits that he isn’t a whistleblower: he wasn’t confronted with illegal activities or significant abuses and subsequently secured evidence of that, but acted the other way around, by first gathering as much information he could get and then look whether there was something incriminating in it.

In his memoir, Snowden doesn’t come up with concrete misconducts or other things that could have triggered his decision to hand the files over to journalists. He even omits almost all the disclosures made by the press, which makes that Permanent Record contains hardly anything that justifies his unprecedented data theft.





The tunnel entrance to the former Kunia Regional Security Operations Center


in Hawaii, where Snowden worked from March 2012 to March 2013


(photo: NSA – click to enlarge)



The documents

The actual number of documents which Snowden eventually exfiltrated from the NSA has never been clarified. According to the 2016 report from the US House Intelligence Committee, Snowden removed more than 1.5 million documents from NSANet and the JWICS intelligence network.

Glenn Greenwald repeatedly said that number was “pure fabrication” and he could probably agree with former NSA director Keith Alexander who in November 2013 estimated that Snowden had exposed only between 50,000 and 200,000 documents.*

According to Barton Gellman, Snowden provided him and Laura Poitras with an encrypted archive of documents called “Pandora” on May 21, 2013. This archive was 8 gigabytes and contained over 50,000 separate documents, all neatly organized in folders.*

Poitras gave Greenwald a copy of the Pandora archive just before they boarded their flight to Hong Kong on June 1. There, Snowden gave Ewen MacAskill from The Guardian some 50,000 documents about GCHQ and handed over all the remaining files to Greenwald and Poitras, who are the only ones with a complete set. Other media outlets only got partial sets of documents.

Greenwald’s cache eventually ended up at The Intercept, the online news outlet he co-founded with Jeremy Scahill and Laura Poitras in 2014 to report about the Snowden documents. In March 2019, however, The Intercept closed its Snowden archive and reportedly destroyed it.





Screenshot from a Brazilian television report, showing some of the Snowden files


opened in a TrueCrypt window on the laptop of Glenn Greenwald.


(screenshot by koenrh – click to enlarge)


Non-Snowden leaks

In a message to Gellman, Snowden said that “he was not resigned to life in prison or worse. He wanted to show other whistleblowers that there could be a happy ending”.* Later, whistleblower attorney Jesselyn Radack hoped that “courage is contagious, and we see more and more people from the NSA coming through our door after Snowden made these revelations.”

Indeed, other sources started to leak documents to the press. The first one was a so-called tasking record showing that the NSA had targeted the non-secure cell phone of German chancellor Angela Merkel. This was revealed by Der Spiegel on October 23, 2013, which is less than five months after the start of Snowden’s revelations.

The second leaked document that wasn’t attributed to Snowden was just as spectacular: the ANT product catalog with a range of sophisticated spying gadgets from the NSA’s hacking division TAO. This catalog was also published by Der Spiegel and discussed by Jacob Appelbaum during the CCC on December 30, 2013.

Initially, hardly anyone noticed that these documents didn’t come from Snowden, and so a mysterious “second source” was able to publish files that were sometimes even more embarrassing and damaging than those from the Snowden trove, like intercepted conversations from foreign government leaders.

Later, other piggybackers who called themselves The Shadow Brokers leaked highly sensitive information about NSA hacking tools. The sources of these leaks have never been identified, although it’s often assumed that Russian intelligence was behind it. Snowden never addressed these other leaks, nor distanced himself from them.





NSA report about an intercepted conversation of French president Hollande.


Leaked by an unknown source and published by Wikileaks in 2015


(click to enlarge)



The Section 215 program

The very first disclosure of a document that did come from Snowden was the Verizon order of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). This court convenes behind closed doors and is often, but injustly referred to as a “rubber stamp”. The order was published by The Guardian on June 6, 2013.

The Verizon order showed that the NSA was collecting domestic telephone metadata under the so-called Section 215 program. In the US, this became the most controversial issue and initially it seemed to confirm cryptic public warnings by US senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, as well as the aforementioned claims by Bill Binney about domestic mass surveillance.

In reaction, Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper started an unprecedented declassification effort and released numerous FISC and NSA documents about the Section 215 program on a newly created Tumblr site called IC On the Record.

This was meant to clarify a central misunderstanding: the fact that the NSA collects data inside the US doesn’t mean they are spying on Americans. The NSA is still focused on foreign targets, but because they are using American internet services, it proved to be fruitful to intercept their data not only abroad, but at telecoms and internet companies inside the US as well (the “home field advantage”).

Accordingly, the purpose of the Section 215 program was to find out whether foreign terrorists were in contact with unknown conspirators inside the US, which was one of the failures that could have prevented the attacks of 9/11.

Therefore, the only thing the domestic telephone records were used for was simple contact chaining: NSA started with a phone number of a foreign terrorist and then the MAINWAY system presented the (foreign and domestic) phone numbers with which that initial number had been in contact with, as well as the numbers they, in their turn had been in contact with, the so-called “second hop”:

In 2012, the NSA used 288 phone numbers as a “seed” for such a contact chaining query, resulting in 6000 phone numbers that analysts actually looked at. When this led to a suspicious American phone number, the NSA passed it on to the FBI for further investigation.

This true purpose of the domestic metadata collection was clearly laid out in a public report which the independent Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) published in January 2014. The PCLOB found “no instance in which the program directly contributed to the discovery of a previously unknown terrorist plot”, but the program was of some value as it offered additional leads and could show that foreign terrorist plots had no US nexus.

Although these domestic telephone records were not used to spy on Americans, and the FISC limited their retention to 5 years and prohibited the collection of location data, many people would not like to have them in an NSA database because of what Binney and Snowden called the possibility of a “turnkey tyranny”.*

The publication of the Verizon order did not only make the general public aware of the Section 215 program, but also gave civil liberty organizations standing in court, which fulfilled Jacob Appelbaum’s wish from the 2012 Surveillance Teach-In.

Meanwhile there have been two cases in which a Circuit Court of Appeals ruled about the Section 215 program. They both found that the bulk collection of metadata exceeded the scope of Section 215 of the Patriot Act (because the actual practice hadn’t been foreseen by lawmakers, although they had been briefed about it later). The courts didn’t decide on whether the program was constitutional or not.





The first page of the Verizon order from April 25, 2013


(click for the full document)



The PRISM program

One day after the publication of the Verizon order, The Guardian and The Washington Post revealed the PRISM program, which became
synonymous for an all encompassing NSA spying system, just like ECHELON was before.

In his book Dark Mirror, Barton Gellman tells a different story than Greenwald did in No Place to Hide. Greenwald presented himself as the one who was chosen by Snowden to lead the revelations and claimed that he and Laura Poitras were working with Snowden since February 2013, while Gellman only got “some documents” and that Snowden was angry about the fear-driven approach of The Washington Post.*

According to Gellman, the opposite was the case: on January 31, 2013, Laura Poitras already asked him for advice and on May 7, they agreed to work together. She introduced Gellman to her source, who still called himself Verax, and they started encrypted chat conversations. On May 20, Snowden sent them the full PRISM presentation, after which they signed a contract with The Washington Post on May 24.*

But Snowden was under severe time pressure and urged Gellman to rapidly publish the full PRISM presentation, which he had signed with a digital signature associated with his Verax alter ego. Only gradually did Gellman realize the implications of this. Snowden’s plan was to ask political asylum at a foreign diplomatic mission in Hong Kong, where he wanted to use the cryptographic signature to identify himself as the source of the PRISM document (and didn’t rule out to “provide raw source material to a foreign government”).*

As a journalist, Gellman protected the identity of his source, but publishing the digitally signed PRISM presentation would make him and The Washington Post complicit in Snowden’s flight from American law. After consulting Poitras, Gellman decided not to do so. On May 27, Snowden withdrew the exclusive right for the Washington Post and turned to Greenwald, who until that moment didn’t know who Snowden was, nor had seen any of the documents.*

When Greenwald finally managed to get PGP working, Snowden sent him a zip-file with some 25 documents, including the 41-slide PRISM presentation. Greenwald started writing his own story about PRISM, which was published by The Guardian on June 6, 2013.* Just an hour earlier, The Washington Post had released its own PRISM story.

The most controversial part of these stories was the claim that “the National Security Agency has obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other US internet giants”, which those companies vigorously denied.

That “direct access” was taken from one of the slides, but it’s unclear why both Gellman and Greenwald stuck to the most simple interpretation of it. Fact is that they had access to the extensive accompanying speaker’s notes, which said: “PRISM access is 100% dependent on ISP provisioning”.*

They also had all the other PRISM slides, including two that were published later on, which clearly show that the FBI is in between the NSA and the internet companies:


PRISM-slide published by Le Monde on October 22, 2013


In July 2014, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board report (PCLOB) published an extensive public report about PRISM as well, which confirms that individual selectors (like a target’s e-mail address) are sent to internet companies, which are “compelled to give the communications sent to or from that selector to the government.” According to the PCLOB, PRISM “has proven valuable in the government’s efforts to combat terrorism as well as in other areas of foreign intelligence.”

In Dark Mirror, Gellman admits: “In retrospect, I do not love the way I wrote the [PRISM] story. I knew a lot less then than I learned later, with more time in the documents and many more interviews”. A well-informed source told him that the systems of a company like Facebook are too complex to let the NSA plug in a cable. Only Facebook knows how to pull things out, which they can hand over upon a valid request.* Google did that through secure FTP transfers and in person.

Another interesting addition provided by Gellman is about the date of the PRISM presentation, April 2013, which is less than one and a half months before Snowden left the NSA:

“Nothing Snowden had seen until now better suited his plan. He had been talking to Poitras for three months, but he still did not feel confident that his disclosures would seize attention from a public that had seldom responded strongly to privacy warnings. Most of the NSA programs that worried him were legally and technically intricate, not easy to explain. He needed examples that ordinary people would recognize. Along came [the PRISM] presentation, festooned at the top of every slide with iconic logos from the best-known Internet companies in the world. “PRISM hits close to people’s hearts”, he told me.”*


Overcollection

While PRISM is no mass surveillance, but targeted collection against individual foreign targets, it still has a problematic aspect: overcollection. Snowden was eager to draw public attention to this issue and, according to Greenwald, took his last job at NSA Hawaii only in order to get access to the NSA’s raw data repositories.* Snowden declined to repeat or explain that to Gellman though.*

He succeeded and was able to exfiltrate a cache of ca. 22,000 collection reports, containing 160,000 individual conversations (75% of which instant messages), which the NSA collected via the PRISM program between 2009 and 2012.*

Snowden handed them over to Barton Gellman who reported about these files in July 2014. Researchers at The Washington Post found that the intercepted communications contained valuable foreign intelligence information, but also that over 9 out of 10 accountholders were not the intended surveillance targets and that nearly half of the files contained US person identifiers.

It’s probably technically impossible to prevent such overcollection, but instead of deleting irrelevant personal content, the NSA only “minimizes” it, which means that names of Americans are redacted before they are distributed. Gellman saw that NSA personnel takes these procedures seriously, but when he confronted former NSA deputy director Rick Ledgett with his unease, Ledgett’s only reply was that the NSA really doesn’t care about ordinary people.*


The Mission List

Ledgett’s answer is confirmed by a comprehensive listing of the tasks of the NSA in the Strategic Mission List from January 2007. It was published by The New York Times in November 2013, but got hardly any attention, despite the fact that it clearly contradicts the claims by Snowden and Greenwald that the NSA has just one single goal: collect all digital communications from all over the world.

Equally less traction gained reports by Ewen MacAskill from The Guardian and Scott Shane from The New York Times, who tried to provide balance and nuance by showing that NSA and GCHQ also did many good things, like monitoring terrorists, the Taliban, hostage takers, human traffickers, and drug cartels.

The Mission List says that China, North-Korea, Iraq, Iran, Russia and Venezuela were “Enduring Targets”, which means they are of long-term strategic importance and therefore require a holistic approach. Next there were 16 “Topical Missions”, which are subject to some change, but can be considered legitimate targets for any large intelligence agency:

– Winning the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT)


– Protecting the US homeland


– Combating proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)


– Protecting US military forces deployed overseas


– Providing warning of impending state instability


– Providing warning of a strategic nuclear missile attack


– Monitoring regional tensions that could escalate


– Preventing an attack on US critical information systems


– Early detection of critical foreign military developments


– Preventing technological surprise


– Ensuring diplomatic advantage for the US


– Ensuring a steady and reliable energy supply for the US


– Countering foreign intelligence threats


– Countering narcotics and transnational criminal networks


– Mapping foreign military and civil communications infrastructure

In 2013, terrorism was replaced by cyber attacks as top threat to American national security. Since then, cyber threats are increasing in frequency, scale, sophistication and severity of impact.






Screenshot of the BOUNDLESSINFORMANT tool showing where the NSA collected most data



Spying among friends

For its mission of “Ensuring Diplomatic Advantage for the U.S.”, the NSA intercepts the communications of numerous foreign governments and government leaders. Based upon documents from the Snowden trove, media reported about eavesdropping operations against the Mexican candidate for the presidency, Enrique Peña Nieto, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, the Venezuelan oil company PdVSA and many others.

The NSA’s interest in Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel had the most far-reaching consequences. Merkel herself made clear to president Obama that “spying on friends is not acceptable” (Ausspähen unter Freunden, das geht gar nicht) and the German parliament started an official investigation into the spying activities of the NSA (NSA-Untersuchungsausschuss or #NSAUA). This inquiry lasted from March 2014 to June 2017, but soon shifted its focus to Germany’s own foreign intelligence agency BND.

Extensive hearings of BND employees resulted in unprecedented insights into the details of the cable tapping and satellite interception operations which the BND conducted in cooperation with the NSA. Eventually it became clear that the NSA wasn’t spying on German citizens, but did try to collect communications from European governments and companies of interest – just like the BND itself, which was also targeting American and French foreign ministers, the interior departments of EU member states, and many others.


German chancellor Angela Merkel holding a secure BlackBerry Z10 in 2013


(photo: Nicki Demarco/The Fold/The Washington Post)



Backdoor tapping Google

A disclosure that caused outrage in Silicon Valley was about MUSCULAR, a collection program in which the NSA cooperates with its British counterpart GCHQ. In October 2013, The Washington Post reported that under this program, the NSA had secretly broken into the main communications links between Yahoo and Google data centers around the world.

A big question was: why would the NSA do that, given that they already had “front door” access to Google and Yahoo via the PRISM program? Gellman asked Snowden, but his only answer was: “Because it could” and: “I’m speculating, but NSA doesn’t ignore low-hanging fruit”. Eventually Gellman realized that inside the US, the NSA had to specify individual targets, but abroad it was possible to acquire such data in bulk and to search and analyse it with XKEYSCORE.*

The Post didn’t mention the XKEYSCORE system by name and it’s also not explained in Gellman’s book Dark Mirror. That’s unfortunate, because while Greenwald and Snowden presented XKEYSCORE as a global mass surveillance tool, it’s actually a smart system to find targets who are communicating anonymously and therefore cannot be traced in the traditional way, via identifiers like phone numbers and e-mail addresses.


NSA slide showing where to intercept data from the Google cloud



BOUNDLESSINFORMANT

Where Section 215 was most controversial in the United States, but lesser-known in Europe, the opposite was the case with BOUNDLESSINFORMANT, which caused fury in Europe, but is hardly known across the ocean. BOUNDLESSINFORMANT isn’t a system to collect data, but an internal visualization tool that counts metadata records to provide insights into the NSA’s worldwide data collection.

The results are shown in heat maps and charts, for example for countries and collection programs. Such charts for Germany and a few other countries were published on July 29, 2013 by Der Spiegel, but on August 5, the German foreign intelligence agency BND said that they collected these data during military operations abroad and subsequently shared them with the NSA.

Despite this statement, Glenn Greenwald interpreted these charts as evidence of American mass surveillance on European citizens and started publishing them in major European newspapers.


BOUNDLESSINFORMANT chart showing the numbers of


metadata which German BND shared with the NSA


On October 21, for example, the French paper Le Monde published a story saying that “telephone communications of French citizens are intercepted on a massive scale.” After a similar story appeared in Spain, NSA director Keith Alexander came with a remarkable clarification, saying: “This is not information that we collected on European citizens. It represents information that we and our NATO allies have collected in defense of our countries and in support of military operations.”

Greenwald continued his framing in Norwegian and Italian papers. Only in The Netherlands it was found out that the BOUNDLESSINFORMANT charts were not about content, but about metadata. Dutch interior minister Ronald Plasterk, however, still followed Greenwald’s interpretation and assumed the Americans were spying on Dutch citizens. A court case forced the government to admit that Dutch military intelligence had collected the data during operations abroad.

It was only in May 2019 that The Intercept put the pieces together and set the record straight: the various BOUNDLESSINFORMANT charts showed cellphone metadata that had been collected by members of the Afghanistan SIGINT Coalition (AFSC, also known as the 9 Eyes) and fed them into the NSA’s Real-Time Regional Gateway (RT-RG) big data analysis platform.

When The Intercept confronted Greenwald with this new research, he still tried to blame the NSA: “At the time, Der Spiegel had already reported this interpretation, the NSA wouldn’t answer our questions, and they wouldn’t give us any additional information. I am totally in favor of correcting the record if the reporting was inaccurate.”

While Greenwald ignored the declaration by general Alexander, he was right when he said that the NSA’s internal documentation about BOUNDLESSINFORMANT was somewhat confusing. Apparently, Greenwald had to rely on that documentation because Snowden was of little help, just like he was for various other programs that journalists did not fully understand.





Slide showing all the collection systems that fed the RT-RG platform


(click to enlarge)



Truth

Many of the documents that Snowden provided to the press have been misinterpreted or exaggerated, sometimes unintentional, but in other cases maybe deliberately. In Dark Mirror, Barton Gellman writes:

“There were signs that Snowden was capable of an instrumental approach to truth. In conversations about my work, when I got stuck on a hard reporting problem, he sometimes suggested that I provoke fresh disclosures from government officials by pretending to know more than I did.”

“Another time he went further, proposing that I actually publish informed speculation as fact. If my story outran the evidence, he said, the government would be forced to respond and thereby reveal more. There would be a net gain for public information either way.”

“He said misinformation from people like Mike Hayden, supporters of the intelligence establishment, pushed the terms of debate so far off center that only rhetorical counterforce could set the record straight.”*

Gellman declined this approach because it would make his reporting unreliable and it undermines confidence in the press if it would turn out that certain things weren’t true. However, claims made by Greenwald and Snowden himself showed that his “counterforce” method sometimes did work: the government came up with new facts – but those never got the same attention as the original story, which was already stuck in people’s minds.

Conclusion

There’s no doubt that the Snowden revelations provided unprecedented insight into modern-day signals intelligence as conducted by the NSA and its Five Eyes partners.

In part this was much needed to understand how the legal framework is implemented and where safeguards need improvement. That, however, requires a close examination of the documents, which shows the problems are smaller and more complex than the mythical “global mass surveillance” which Snowden and Greenwald tried to proof.

On the other hand, many things have been published that were merely sensational and weakened the US and its signals intelligence system. By revealing its workings and capacity, the Snowden revelations unintentionally set a new standard which other countries hurried to catch up with.

Links





– Der Spiegel: Das Internet ist heute anders unsicher (June 9, 2023)


– The Atlantic: Did the Snowden Revelations Change Anything? (June 7, 2023)


– The Guardian: Snowden, MI5 and me: how the leak of the century came to be published (June 7, 2023)


– The Guardian: What’s really changed 10 years after the Snowden revelations? (June 7, 2023)


– Schneier on Security: Snowden Ten Years Later (June 6, 2023)


– System Update: SNOWDEN REVELATIONS 10-Year Anniversary: Glenn Greenwald Speaks with Snowden & Laura Poitras on the Past, Present, & Future of Their Historic Reporting (June 6, 2023)


– neues deutschland: 10 Jahre Snowden-Leaks: Enthüllungen nicht mehr erwünscht (June 6, 2023)


– neues deutschland: Snowden-Leaks: Geheimdokumente belegen globale Massenüberwachung (June 6, 2023)


– Heise: Edward Snowden: Die Enthüllungen des NSA-Whistleblowers 10 Jahre später (June 5, 2023)


– Der Tagesspiegel: Edward Snowden und die Whistleblower-Frage Feiert die Verräter! (June 2023)


– Netkwesties: Barton Gellman herziet NSA-onthullingen (Dec. 7, 2020)


– See also: Timeline of Edward Snowden


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