Snowden Revelations, the CFR run NSA, the CFR packed SCOTUS, the 4th, and You

Snowden photo 1

On Tuesday May 23 2017, a federal appeals court revived a high-profile challenge to the National Security Agency’s warrantless surveillance of internet communications. The ruling, by the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, is significant because it increases the chances that the Supreme Court may someday scrutinize whether the N.S.A.’s so-called upstream system for internet surveillance complies with Fourth Amendment privacy rights. The New York Times article about the appeal says  “It is currently an open question about how to apply old legal concepts to 21st-century communications technology.”

The old legal concept the New York Times is referring to is the 4th Amendment to the constitution. “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” This old legal concept prevents abuse by government officials against innocent people, including intrusion into their private matters. This old legal concept is not an open question that should be decided by a CFR packed SCOTUS  ( current CFR members include Ginsberg, Breyer & Gorsuch) who have legalized infanticide (Roe vs Wade) and sodomy (Obergefell vs Hodges).

In July of 2013  The CFR run Obama Administration conducted a full-court press to block fugitive Edward J. Snowden from finding refuge in Latin America. Three left-leaning governments that make defying Washington a hallmark of their foreign policies had vowed to take him in.

The CFR took over the State Department in 1945 and have run it ever since. The CFR are the Military Industrial Complex. The CFR can use information gathered by the NSA for CFR corporate member profit. Snowden’s whistle blowing was a major headache to the CFR members, CFR corporate members and the CFR run intelligence community.

CFR members involved in going after Snowden included Susan Rice the 18th Council on Foreign Relations NSA director, David Petraeus the 18th CFR CIA director, Janet Napolitano the 1st CFR DHS director, John Kerry the 22nd CFR Secretary of State. The CFR run Carlyle group owns Booz-Allen the spy company Snowden worked for.  CFR member Bill Richardson, a former American ambassador to the United Nations who visited Venezuela in 2013 backed Kerry up.

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CFR corporate members have bought both houses of congress through legalized bribery we call lobbying. A grand jury should be convened to investigate the Council on Foreign Relations for crimes against humanity as well as other fraudulent acts committed by Council on Foreign Relations Bank and Wall Street CEOs.

CFR members in the NSA can spy on target and kill American citizens. President Obama was surrounded by CFR members and is little more than a CFR puppet, every president since Wilson has been. President Trump is also surrounding himself with CFR members. Trump’s new National Security advisor is CFR member H.R. Macmaster. Macmaster was one of Obama’s CFR devils in the details of endless war.

The article that follows was printed in the ACM journal Communications. It contains a discussion of what Snowden did and what the NSA could have done to prevent it. The constitutionality and morality aspects of the NSA’s spying on all Americans is what Snowden was trying to draw attention. Following the article is a section that explores the NSA’s spying and how it violates the 4th Amendment of the constitution. Read it carefully. Snowden is a hero.

Franklin liberty Obama

The NSA and Snowden: Securing the All-Seeing Eye

By Bob Toxen
Communications of the ACM, Vol. 57 No. 5, Pages 44-51
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snowden ACM photo


Edward Snowden, while a contractor for the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) at Booz Allen Hamilton in Hawaii, copied up to 1.7 million top-secret and above documents, smuggling copies on a thumb drive out of the secure facility in which he worked and releasing many of those documents to the press.2This has altered the relationship of the U.S. government with the American people, as well as with other countries. This article examines the computer-security aspects of how the NSA could have prevented this from happening, perhaps the most damaging breach of secrets in U.S. history.19 The accompanying sidebar looks at the Constitutional, legal, and moral issues.

According to Presidential Executive Order 13526, ” ‘Top Secret’ shall be applied to information, the unauthorized disclosure of which reasonably could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security.”24 There are clearance levels above top secret, such as SCI (sensitive compartmented information), SAP (special access programs), and CNWDI (critical nuclear weapon design information).9 The British equivalent to top secret is most secret.

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What Did Snowden Do?

Snowden was a computer system administrator. Guarding against rogue system administrators (a.k.a sys admins) is more difficult than guarding against users, but it can be done. Note that the NSA has an almost infinite budget and resources, and thus could have been following good security practices all along. In the words of White House cybersecurity adviser Richard Clarke, “If you spend more on coffee than on IT security, you will be hacked. What’s more, you deserve to be hacked.”20

National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” last December 17 stated the stolen documents were on Microsoft’s SharePoint document-management system. Of the 1.7 million documents likely copied, Snowden shared up to 200,000 documents with reporters; the NSA did not dispute this.2,19 Rick Ledgett, head of the NSA’s task force accessing the “damage” done by Snowden, claimed “system administrators…have passwords that give them the ability to go around those… security measures, and that’s what Snowden did.”19

That the NSA’s Ledgett claims to be unaware of the past 30 years of computer-security techniques and technology for preventing a system administrator from stealing data is puzzling.10,15,29 This is discussed later in the section “Orange Book and Two-Person Authorization.” The NSA no longer uses SharePoint for this purpose, which begs the question, why did the NSA abandon secure Orange Book compliance and other good security practices for computer systems that handle classified data?

In an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes,” on December 15, 2013 General Keith B. Alexander, director of the NSA, admitted that part of Snowden’s job was to transfer large amounts of classified data between NSA computer systems.19 Snowden then copied files to a USB memory stick and concealed it on his person to smuggle vast amounts of data out of the NSA.11,26 A simple one-minute scan on the way out by a handheld metal detector—”wanding,” as used by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and at courthouses—would have found any flash memory device.

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Rings of Security

Let’s digress briefly to discuss the important concept of rings of security, my term for the industry-standard but less obvious term security in depth. This means having multiple concentric rings of security so that if attackers get through the first or outermost ring they encounter, then, hopefully, the second or third or fourth ring will stop them; no one security measure is 100% effective. These rings mostly are about authentication and are unrelated to what a user is allowed to do once authenticated. Consider how rings of security might apply to an ordinary network; this “ordinary” level of security is insufficient where very high security is needed such as the NSA, banks, systems handling large numbers of Social Security or credit-card numbers, among others.

There are a number of security methods the NSA could have used that would have stopped Snowden. Many of these have been in use for a decade or more, yet the NSA did not use them.

Suppose we want to have a network in which sys admins are able to SSH (Secure Shell) into a server from home. In the first ring the firewall might allow SSH access only from a short list of IP addresses of the sys admins’ home systems. Thus, instead of being able to attack from any of a billion systems on the Internet someone would have to launch her attack from one of, perhaps, a dozen system administrators’ home networks, a vastly reduced vulnerability profile. Modern TCP/IP implementations, used by SSH, are very immune to IP spoofing. When combined with end-to-end encryption person-in-the-middle attacks are virtually eliminated.

The second ring might allow SSH authentication only via public/private keys on these home Linux or Unix systems. Prohibiting SSH from accepting passwords prevents password-guessing risks and thus access from unauthorized systems. The third ring would monitor log files for attacks and block those IPs, preferably automatically. The fourth ring would be a strong passphrase on that SSH private key. A fifth ring could require sys admins’ home systems (and, of course, all systems at the office) to lock the screen after a few minutes of inactivity.

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Stopping Snowden

There are a number of security methods the NSA could have used that would have stopped Snowden. Many of these have been in use for a decade or more, yet the NSA did not use them.

Islands of Security. The obvious place to start in this case is with preventing sys admins or others from getting into unauthorized systems. The islands-of-security concept is a safeguard in case someone manages to penetrate the network. In a high-security organization, different segments, even different systems, should be treated as islands of security that do not trust each other or the network in the vast ocean of systems. This means different systems should have different root passwords, different user passwords, different SSH passphrases, and almost all traffic between systems should be encrypted. Systems should have encrypted file systems and encrypted backups.

Physical Security. Each island of security should be physically protected against attack. This certainly would include the systems and peripherals and the network carrying any unencrypted confidential data. Even large commercial collocation facilities have steel cages around some systems and video cameras watching these areas. The payment card industry (PCI) security standard requires such protection for large credit-card processors. High-security operations should install video cameras and keep the recordings for a long time.

One simple safeguard is to put two high-security locks on each cage, each lock needing a different key possessed by a different person. Thus, two people must be present when the hardware is accessed. Similarly, networking cables could be secured (for example, inside of steel pipe), or the data encrypted before sending it around the LAN or WAN. There is no indication that Snowden took advantage of any lack of physical security, although it is critical for protection.

Prevent Unauthorized Copying. The ability to plug in a USB memory stick or insert a blank DVD for writing should be disabled. Most DVD burners and USB jacks should be removed as well. Cameras, recorders, mobile phones, and any other unauthorized storage devices should be forbidden and guarded against. Metal detectors at doors would detect violators. Radio frequency (RF) emissions should be monitored, and Faraday cages could be incorporated to block RF emissions. None of these techniques is expensive.

Two-Factor Authentication. Even Snowden’s top-secret clearance was not sufficient to allow him access to some of the documents he stole. The NSA admitted that Snowden used the higher-than-top-secret clearances of the user accounts of some top NSA officials. This was possible because he had created these accounts or used his sys admin privileges to modify the accounts to access even more highly classified documents remotely using NSAnet, the NSA’s classified intranet.13 Snowden’s access to accounts with higher security clearance than his violated the long-accepted security policy that the system should prevent anyone from accessing data with a higher clearance than the user’s. It would have been a trivial matter for the computer to prevent this and instead require the services of a system administrator with that higher clearance level to adjust those accounts as needed.

This also violated the concept of two-factor authentication. Authentication is the ability of a computer (or security guard or even a store clerk) to determine if you really are who you claim to be. Typically, an authentication method consists of what you know (password or PIN), what you have (credit card or RFID-equipped badge issued to employees and consultants or USB dongle), or what you are (your signature or fingerprint or retina scan or your picture on a hard-to-forge document such as a driver’s license, employee badge, or passport). Each of these is called a factor. None of these methods is expensive, and all are effective. While fingerprints can be faked with some effort, this is more difficult with modern high-quality fingerprint readers, which are available commercially.

Many organizations use the very popular two-factor authentication to grant access to computers or facilities or money, requiring, for example, that one does not get access without providing a password or an RFID-equipped badge and a fingerprint. Three-factor authentication would be even better.

Had the NSA required good two-factor authentication, such as a fingerprint and password compared against central databases to which Snowden did not have administrative access, it would have prevented him from impersonating others to use their accounts—which is how he obtained documents above his security clearance. Collecting these factors for the databases would be done by two different sets of people, neither being the set that manages classified documents as Snowden did. This separation of authority is critical for good security as it requires multiple people to effect a compromise.

Even if the person managing users’ passwords went rogue, she would not have access to the fingerprint database. The password manager could be prevented from seeing the user entering his password by having the user enter a separate inner room via a one-person mantrap to which the person managing password changes does not have access. That room would have a virtual keyboard on a physically hardened touchscreen, making rogue use of a keystroke logger difficult. Lack of space here does not allow discussion of deeper exploits such as spoofing fingerprints, guarding against keyloggers, TEMPEST (the NSA’s own set of security standards for radio frequency leakage of information), social engineering, and more.

Social engineering is where an attacker tricks someone into revealing information that he should not reveal. Email messages falsely claiming to be from your bank asking you to click on a link and provide your password or offering to share stolen money with you are examples. Snowden used social engineering to obtain the password of at least one NSA employee who subsequently resigned; it has been addressed extensively in other papers and books. Good recurrent education and strict policy forbidding sharing one’s passwords, badge, or dongle under any circumstance might have prevented this part of Snowden’s breach.

Orange Book and Two-Person Authorization. Someone is less likely to do something dishonest if someone else is watching. This is why many stores have at least two people working and why armored car services use two people. It also is why you see “Two signatures required for amounts over $5,000” at the bottom of some checks.

The NSA created the Orange Book specification for Trusted Computer System Evaluation Criteria 30 years ago, requiring the federal government and contractors to use it for computers handling data with multiple levels of security classification. This author enhanced one Orange Book-compliant Unix system to have additional security capabilities. Such a computer would prevent, say, a user with only secret clearance from viewing a top-secret document. One also could create different “compartments” in which to keep separate sets of documents. Only someone allowed access to a particular named compartment could access documents in that compartment, even if that person otherwise has sufficient security clearance.

This high-security clearance is known as “compartmentalized security” (a.k.a. “need to know”). An important aspect of protecting a body of secrets is that very few people should have access to more than a small portion of them. A person working with one critical compartment should be barred from accessing other critical compartments. Those that know many of the secrets, such as General Alexander, get constant Secret Service protection.

One compartment might be “spying on Americans’ phone records without a valid warrant.” Another might be “listening to Americans’ domestic phone conversations and reading email without a valid warrant.”3,12,17,22 A third might be “hacking the phones of leaders of allied countries.” As Snowden should not have been involved in any of those projects and thus should lack sufficient clearance, he would not have been able to access those programs’ documents or even know that they existed. In reality, however, the NSA allowed one person, Snowden, unfettered, unmonitored access to 1.7 million documents.

Also important is the Orange Book concept of not trusting any one system administrator. Instead, a role-1 sys admin queues system changes, such as new accounts or changes to an existing accounts. A second person, in role 2, cannot initiate such requests but must approve the queued requests before they can take effect. An Orange Book OS also prevents use of a login simulator by displaying a special symbol when soliciting a password that no other program can display. Snowden may have used a login simulator.

How expensive might this two-person authorization have been? In 2013, the NSA had approximately 40,000 employees and perhaps 40,000 contractors, including 1,000 system admins.8,25 Adding another 1,000 system administrators to watch the first set would have increased the payroll by a trivial 1%.

Given this, is the NSA going to adopt two-person authorization and the Orange Book policy that it created? No, the NSA is going to fire 90% of its system administrators to limit human access and put most of the servers in the NSA’s own cloud.1 A cloud is just another name for a set of computers remotely accessible over a network and typically managed by others, usually a vendor (a.k.a., contractor). Maybe it will hire Booz Allen, Snowden’s former employer, to manage this cloud.

Log Events and Monitor. The NSA should monitor how many documents one accesses and at what rate, and then detect and limit this. It is astonishing, both with the NSA’s breach and similar huge thefts of data such as Target’s late-2013 loss of data for 40 million credit cards (including mine), that nobody noticed and did anything. Decent real-time monitoring and automated response to events would have detected both events early on and could have prevented most of each breach.

The open source Logcheck and Log-watch programs will generate alerts of abnormal events in near real time, and the Fail2Ban program will lock out the attacker. All are free and easily can be customized to detect excessive quantities of downloads of documents. There are many comparable commercial applications, and the NSA certainly has the budget to create its own.

No Internet Access or Homework Whatsoever. Obvious, this policy is to prevent classified data from leaving a secure building. For after-hours problems, a sys admin either must drive to the office or be on-site at all times. One former CIA director nearly was fired for taking classified data home to work on, violating a strict policy against it. (He was not stealing the data; he just wanted to work at home.) Snowden took classified material home and worked on it with a hood covering him and the computer so that his girlfriend could not see it.19 Clearly, then, he could have photographed the screen.

Prevent Removable Media from Leaving the Building. Recall the rings of security. One ring would prevent removable media from leaving the building. Every gas-station owner has figured this out, attaching a large object to each restroom key. The NSA could put each thumb drive inside a large steel box, or it could replace the standard USB connectors and those of the computers with custom-designed connectors that are difficult to duplicate.

Creatively Use Encryption. Consider that one of Snowden’s jobs was copying large amounts of classified data from one computer to a thumb drive and then connecting that thumb drive to another computer and downloading the data. He likely secreted the thumb drive on his person after downloading the data he wanted and took it home. This theft could have been prevented rather easily with the use of public-key encryption.33In public-key encryption there are two related keys: a public key and a secret key, also called a private key. If the original “clear text” is encrypted with the public key, then it can be decrypted only with the secret key, not with the public key used to encrypt the data.

The NSA should have had a public/secret-key pair created for each sys admin needing to transfer data and a separate account on each computer for each sys admin to transfer this data. The person generating this encrypted data on the source computer (for example, Snowden) would have to provide the ID of the public key of a different sys admin—say, Julia—to the custom program allowed to write to the USB thumb drive; software would not allow his own public key to be used. The set of sys admins allowed to do transfers of data would have no members in common with the set of sys admins on the source and destination computers with root access. In other words, a “Data Transfer System Administrator” such as Snowden would not have root or physical access to computers and sys admins having root or physical access would be prohibited from transferring data between systems. This separation of responsibilities is critical. Only that custom program, not sys admins, would be allowed to write to the thumb drive. That computer would encrypt the data with Julia’s public key and write that encrypted data to the thumb drive.

Snowden then would download the encrypted data to the destination computer via the thumb drive using a custom program on the destination computer (with that program having sole access to the USB drive) after he had logged into his account. That program would prompt Snowden for the account in which to transfer that encrypted data to (for example, Julia’s), and then move the encrypted file to her account. Julia would log in to the destination computer and provide the passphrase that unlocks her encrypted secret key and her fingerprint or RFID-equipped badge to that custom program, which then would decrypt that data into Julia’s account. After that, she could move the data to the final location on the destination computer. The implementation is trivial.

An outside security audit performed quarterly or annually would have found the NSA’s problems and, perhaps, fixed them in time to stop Snowden.

Needless to say, the sys admins tasked with this data transfer would not have the root (administrative) access to these computers that would allow getting around this custom program’s restrictions, and these computers would be running modern versions of Orange Book-compliant operating systems that would require two system administrators for privileged access in any case. Furthermore, Snowden would not have Julia’s fingerprint or passphrase or, if used, her badge for authentication. The open source GNU Privacy Guard (GPG) stores private keys on disk or elsewhere in an encrypted form that can be decrypted only by providing a passphrase or other authentication.15

Thus, no sys admin acting alone could decrypt data that he or she encrypted to a thumb drive. This would have prevented Snowden’s theft by thumb drive. These custom programs (which would run on the source and destination computers) could be written in a day or two using the open source GPG encryption program by a substantial percentage of those reading this article. Thus, even if a USB drive was smuggled out of a secure NSA facility, it would have no value.

Similarly, there could be an additional ring of file-level encryption for highly classified files with separate public/secret key pairs. Only those users entitled to read these documents (and not even sys admins tasked with copying files) would have the secret keys to decrypt them. Those using the destination system (after legitimate copying by Snowden and Julia) would be able to decrypt the files. The system administrator, however, never would have seen the decrypted documents even by reading the raw disk. By itself, this simple precaution would have prevented the wholesale theft of many documents by Snowden. Combined with the use of public-key encryption for transferring data between systems, Snowden would have had to defeat two extremely challenging rings of security to steal data. Using encrypted file systems or whole-disk encryption on all computers handling classified data would offer an additional ring of security.

Plan for Break-in to Minimize Damage. The NSA’s Ledgett acknowledges, “We also learned for the first time that part of the damage assessment considered the possibility that Snowden could have left a bug or virus behind on the NSA’s system[s], like a time bomb.”19 The agency should have planned for a possible break-in to minimize the harm and quickly and reliably assess the damage. For example, it could be prepared to compare a system’s current state with a trusted backup taken before the break-in. This comparison could be run on a different and trusted system.29 The use of islands of security and not putting all of its eggs in one basket would have minimized the damage greatly. It could have been running a file-system integrity checker all along to detect tampering with files.

Periodic Security Audits. Security is an ongoing process. An outside security audit performed quarterly or annually would have found the NSA’s problems and, perhaps, fixed them in time to stop Snowden. Such an audit is quite common and considered good practice. This is similar to the outside financial audit of large companies required by… the U.S. government. The report should be reviewed by the highest levels of management to avoid lower levels simply ignoring inconvenient findings.

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The NSA seemingly had become lax in utilizing even the most important, simple, and cheap good computer-security practices with predictable consequences, even though it has virtually unlimited resources and access—if it wants it—to the best computer-security experts in the country.

Most of the good security practices covered here were discussed in the author’s Real World Linux Security first published in 2000.29 The most important of these security practices also were discussed in this author’s article, “The Seven Deadly Sins of Linux Security,” published in the May/June 2007 issue of ACM Queue.

I am honored there are autographed copies of my book in the NSA’s headquarters. The vast majority of NSA employees and contractors are eminently talented law-abiding dedicated patriots. It is unfortunate that a tiny percentage no doubt ignored warnings that these security problems desperately needed fixing to avoid a serious breach.

Related articles

Communications Surveillance: Privacy and Security at Risk
Whitfield Diffie and Susan Landau

More Encryption Is Not the Solution
Poul-Henning Kamp

Four Billion Little Brothers?: Privacy, mobile phones, and ubiquitous data collection
Katie Shilton

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  1. Allen, J. NSA to cut system administrators by 90 percent to limit data access. Reuters. Aug. 9, 2013;
  2. Block, M. Snowden’s document leaks shocked the NSA, and more may be on the way. National Public Radio. Dec. 17, 2013;
  3. Brosnahan, J. and West, T. Brief of Amicus Curiae Mark Klein. May 4, 2006;
  4. Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752, 761 (1969).
  5. Cohn, C. and Higgins, P. Rating Obama’s NSA reform plan: EFF scorecard explained. Electronic Frontier Foundation, Jan. 17, 2014;
  6. Coke’s Reports 91a, 77 Eng. Rep. 194 (K.B. 1604).
  7. Davidson, A. Judge Pauley to the N.S.A.: Go Big. The New Yorker. Dec. 28, 2013;
  8. Davidson, J. NSA to cut 90 percent of systems administrators. Washington Post. Aug. 13, 2013;
  9. Defense Logistics Agency. Critical nuclear weapon design information access certificate;
  10. Department of Defense Trusted Computer System Evaluation Criteria, a.k.a., Orange Book 1985;
  11. Dilanian, K. Officials: Edward Snowden took NSA secrets on thumb drive. Los Angeles Times. June 13, 2013;
  12. Electronic Frontier Foundation ( NSA spying video, includes comments from many well-known respected people and reminders of past violations;
  13. Esposito, R. Snowden impersonated NSA officials, sources say. NBC News. Aug. 28, 2013;
  14. Everett, B. and Min Kim, S. Lawmakers praise, pan President Obama’s NSA plan. Politico. Jan. 17, 2014;
  15. GNU Privacy Guard;
  16. Howell’s State Trials 1029, 95 Eng. 807 (1705).
  17. Klein, M. and Bamford, J. Wiring Up the Big Brother Machine…and Fighting It. Booksurge Publishing, 2009.
  18. Legal Information Institute, Cornell University Law School. Fourth Amendment: an overview;
  19. Miller, J. CBS News “60 Minutes.” Dec. 15, 2013;
  20. Lemos, R. Security guru: Let’s secure the Net. ZDnet, 2002;
  21. Mears, B. and Perez, E. Judge: NSA domestic phone data-mining unconstitutional. CNN. Dec. 17, 2013;
  22. Nakashima, E. A story of surveillance. Washington Post. Nov 7, 2007;
  23. Napolitano, A.P. A presidential placebo – Obama’s massive NSA spying program still alive and well. Fox News. Jan. 23, 2014;
  24. Presidential Executive Order 13526 12/29/2009;
  25. Rosenbach, M. Prism exposed: Data surveillance with global implications. Spiegel Online International. June 10, 2013: 2;
  26. Schwartz, M. Thumb drive security: Snowden 1, NSA 0. InformationWeek. June 14, 2013;
  27. Shiffman, J., Cooke, K. Exclusive: U.S. directs agents to cover up program used to investigate Americans. Reuters. Aug. 05, 2013;
  28. Smith, C. BGR. Jan. 23, 2014;
  29. Toxen, B. Real-world Linux Security: Intrusion Detection, Prevention, and Recovery. 2nd Edition. Prentice Hall, 2002.
  30. U. S. Courts. What does the Fourth Amendment mean?;
  31. U.S. Government Printing Office. Fourth Amendment;
  32. Washington Post. Transcript of President Obama’s Jan. 17 speech on NSA reforms, 2014;
  33. Wikipedia. Public-key cryptography;
  34. Wikipedia. Edward Snowden;

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Bob Toxen ( is chief technical officer at Horizon Network Security, which specializes in Linux and network security. He was one of the developers of Berkeley Unix.

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Another critical aspect of the NSA’s spying on all Americans is the constitutionality and morality, which is what Snowden was trying to draw attention to—and succeeded in a big way. The Constitution’s Fourth Amendment says this:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Why did the framers of the Constitution care, and why should we care? In short, because when enforced by honest and competent judges, the Fourth Amendment prevents serious abuse by government officials against innocent people, including intrusion into their private matters. In colonial America, Britain’s King George empowered officials to conduct mass searches of houses, persons, their effects, and so on without a warrant or probable cause, despite the English Court’s Saman’s Case of 1603, which recognized the right of the homeowner to defend his house against unlawful entry even by the king’s agents in the absence of a specific warrant based on probable cause.6,31 This is the meaning behind “Every man’s house is his castle.” (One of the most powerful expressions of that maxim came from William Pitt speaking to Parliament in 1763, “The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the force of the crown. It may be frail… but the King of England cannot enter—all his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement.”)

It was confirmed again in England in 1705 in Entick v. Carrington. The English court decided that a general warrant that caused the raiding of many homes—including Entick’s, which the king’s men broke into and whose locked desks and boxes were broken into as well, with the seizure of many documents unrelated to what was being searched for—was against English law. The court held the warrant used against Entick was too general, not based on probable cause, and allowed the seizing of unrelated material; and, further, no record was made of what was seized. Take note the court case was initiated by Entick suing the crown.16,31 Is not one’s computer and phone the modern equivalent of a locked desk? Electronics certainly qualify as personal belongings, which is how the Oxford English Dictionary defines effects. One’s effects are protected by the Fourth Amendment.

On December 28, 2013, U.S. Judge William H. Pauley III held that an American may not file suit against the NSA for spying on Americans. Specifically, he dismissed a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), saying, “The ACLU would never have learned about the section 215 order authorizing collection of telephone metadata related to its telephone numbers but for the unauthorized disclosures of Edward Snowden.”7,34 Section 215 of the Patriot Act requires that this spying on Americans be kept secret forever.

Pauley’s ruling says an American may not challenge the constitutionality of a government action because the American found out about it only through the illegal action of another. That ruling sounds more like the former Soviet Union to the author. It also is contrary to more than 200 years of U.S. Constitutional law precedent, which holds a person, regardless of citizenship, always is entitled to all Constitutional rights and always may challenge a violation. The only government defense is that no violation took place.

A 1969 U.S. court ruling found “the [Fourth] Amendment was in large part a reaction to the general warrants and warrantless searches that had so alienated the colonists and had helped speed the movement for independence [e.g., the American Revolution]. In the scheme of the Amendment, therefore, the requirement that ‘no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause’ plays a crucial part.”4,31 More similar U.S. court rulings can be found with little effort. In short, a reasonable search without a warrant requires probable cause, meaning a good reason to believe that someone possesses something illegal or evidence of a crime.

According to the judicial branch of the U.S. government, “Whether a particular type of search is considered reasonable in the eyes of the law is determined by balancing two important interests. On one side of the scale is the intrusion on an individual’s Fourth Amendment rights. On the other side of the scale are legitimate government interests, such as public safety.”30 “Yet, the parameters of the Fourth Amendment do not cease in the realm of searching electronic devices.”18

President Obama’s own independent Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) says the NSA’s phone-spying program is illegal and should end, The Washington Post revealed. “We have not identified a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the telephone records program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation,” the 238-page report says.

PCLOB’s report also says the NSA phone data program cannot be grounded in section 215 of The Patriot Act, which “requires that records sought by the government [e.g., phone numbers] be relevant to an authorized investigation.”28 Seizing all phone records of all Americans “just in case” clearly is not reasonable by any possible interpretation of the Constitution.

On December 16, 2013, U.S. Federal Judge Richard J. Leon ruled that bulk collection of telephone metadata of American telephone companies likely violates the U.S. Constitution. The judge wrote, “I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary’ invasion than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of querying and analyzing it without prior judicial approval… Surely, such a program infringes on ‘that degree of privacy’ that the founders enshrined in the Fourth Amendment.” Leon said the government “does not cite a single instance in which… the NSA’s bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent attack, or otherwise aided the government…”21

Recently my friend Josh asked me about the NSA’s spying on Americans, adding, “Well, if it helps to catch terrorists, I don’t mind them spying on me.” I pointed out that in sworn testimony before Congress, General Keith B. Alexander, director of the NSA, admitted that not a single American life has been saved from the NSA’s deliberate spying on 300 million Americans. I asked him what he thought about some NSA analyst listening in on a romantic conversation with his wife. He did not seem so happy about it now.

Josh has a young daughter, so I asked, “What if in a few years as a 16-year-old, your daughter phones you saying, ‘Daddy, I’m at a friend’s. Could you come get me? I’ve been drinking and I’m not safe to drive. I’m really sorry.’ ” How would Josh like it if the NSA listened to that conversation and provided the local police with his daughter’s location using the phone’s GPS and a transcript of that private phone conversation, and the police then arrested his daughter for underage drinking? Josh got real unhappy at this point. Are you trying to keep your sexual orientation or interests private? How about your religious beliefs or even whom you voted for in the Presidential election? What about that stock tip or patent idea? Is it the government’s business to know whom you are telephoning?

Yes, the NSA really is listening to your domestic phone calls and reading your email in addition to obtaining your private information on the people you telephone.3,12,17,22 Reuters reported on August 5, 2013, that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) admitted to covering up the use of information illegally obtained from the NSA and falsifying the source of evidence. This included information obtained by the NSA from intelligence intercepts, wiretaps, informants, and a massive database of telephone records, all without benefit of a proper warrant or probable cause. The DEA then gave this information to authorities across the nation to help them launch criminal investigations of Americans.27 Clearly this is exactly what the Fourth Amendment was intended to prevent. Is it the government’s place to be doing this?

Judge Andrew P. Napolitano, the youngest person ever to serve on the New Jersey Superior Court, called President Obama’s promised NSA reforms, announced January 17, 2014, a presidential placebo.23,32 The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) rated the President’s reforms 3.5 out of 12.5 (The EFF is a nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting for people’s rights in the electronic world and is, perhaps, the most active organization to fight in the courts and elsewhere against the NSA’s spying on Americans.) Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY.) argued that Obama’s suggested changes will amount to “the same unconstitutional program with a new configuration.”14 Many of these actions by the NSA were started under the second Bush Administration following 9/11. Is the NSA’s spying on all Americans an unconstitutional and illegal violation of the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment? Given the 400 years of history we have examined, this author can see only one conclusion.

Copyright held by Owner/Author.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2014 ACM, Inc.


Ajoy Bhatia

May 27, 2014 09:51

Just goes to show that sometimes, some entity not following good security practices can be good for the people.

Harry Moore

July 01, 2014 04:04

There are a couple of corrections needed in the opening section.
1. There are no clearance levels above Top Secret. SCI and SAP are not clearance levels but special programs with access restrictions. CNWDI is category of classified restricted data.
2. THE UKs equivalent to US Top Secret is Top Secret as well. The old term of most secret was replaced on April 2, 2014 by the revision of HM Government Security Classifications Guide.
I have not read the entire article so I am not sure if there are any other mistakes.

Raju K

December 09, 2014 03:05

Secureness is undisturbed as long as everyone refrains from doing what they are not supposed to do. The moment someone deviates from this principle, what we have is a system that has been compromised. Snowden’s actions led to an insecure environment as he did what he was not supposed to do. However, security consciousness should not be tied to people and their practices. If a piece of software or hardware cannot be refrained from doing things it is not supposed to do, then too, we have a compromised system. How do we ensure that software or hardware components are not indulging in activities that they are not supposed to do ? It is here that accessibility to software sources and accessibility to hardware design details play a crucial role in ensuring a secure environment. With proprietary binary-only software or with a proprietary closed-design hardware, therefore, we can never guarantee a fool-proof secure environment to users. It is here that Snowden-exposed documents become significant – these documents go on to elaborate on how proprietary software binaries could be tweaked for doing insecure or even unlawful things. Without Snowden, such a possibility for committing security breaches would have remained invalidated for long.

CACM Administrator

February 03, 2015 03:53

The following letter was published in the Letters to the Editor of the July 2014 CACM (
–CACM Administrator

I wish reality were as simple as Bob Toxen made it out to be in his article “The NSA and Snowden: Securing the All-Seeing Eye” (May 2014) where he said, “A simple one-minute scan on the way out by a handheld metal detector — ‘wanding,’ as used by the Transportation Security Administration and at courthouses — would have found any flash memory device.” However, flash devices have shrunk to minuscule size, even as their capacity has increased dramatically. Consider the micro-SD flash storage device in a typical smartphone; it can store more than 32GB and be small enough to be hidden practically anywhere. Moreover, its small mass makes detection especially difficult for a typical handheld metal detector. A spy could even attach one with chewing gum to a tooth, defeating practically any routine check.

So the real problem in the case of Edward J. Snowden is not that Snowden carried a flash memory device in and out of National Security Agency facilities but that he was able to transfer sensitive data to the device in the first place.

In most secure environments, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to attach an external device to a secure system. If it could be done, the system would no longer be secure, as the device would be able to transfer malware to, as well as steal data from, the secure system.

In 2008, an infected USB flash drive was famously connected to a military laptop. The malicious code uploaded itself to a secure network under the control of U.S. Central Command. This incident should have alerted the NSA to the dangers inherent in the use of removable memory devices. Moreover, the Stuxnet affair, two years later, demonstrated that U.S. security services were clearly aware that removable memory devices are potential attack vectors. The NSA should have anticipated these risks and taken necessary measures well in advance of Snowden’s leaks.

The reason for the apparent indifference to such risks is that insider attacks are particularly difficult to address. The esprit-de-corps culture prevalent in the NSA made it essentially unthinkable that one in their midst could betray the organization, and is why Snowden was able, apparently, to convince coworkers to grant him additional access.

Security is an overhead; by controlling access, security makes it inherently difficult for people to carry out their work, so a compromise between utility and security must be established. In the Snowden case, though the compromise went too far toward utility, it would be a mistake to go to the other extreme by imposing security procedures that impede the NSA’s useful work.

Vassilis Prevelakis
Braunschweig, Germany


Wanding would have caught a USB memory stick due to the metal in its plug. No security ring is perfect. Defeating the rings involving encryption, physical access to systems, and software limiting the number of documents one may access would be extremely difficult. I demonstrated that stopping even system administrator insider attacks can be done reasonably easily. The reason Prevelakis claimed for NSA “indifference” is unsubstantiated. Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen, and other convicted American traitors should have convinced the NSA (and the CIA) to avoid unlimited trust. (I do not consider Snowden a traitor, as he was alerting Americans to the apparently unconstitutional and illegal actions of the government.)

Bob Toxen
Duluth, GA

CACM Administrator

February 03, 2015 03:54

The following letter was published in the Letters to the Editor of the July 2014 CACM (
–CACM Administrator

I was disturbed by the cover headline — “The NSA and Snowden: How better security measures could have stopped the leak” — publicizing Bob Toxen’s article (May 2014) for implying that Snowden simply produced “leaks” that should have been “stopped.” Moreover, I found it odd that the article focused on how the NSA’s poor security allowed these leaks to take place. It would have been more appropriate to acknowledge the alternative interpretation, that Snowden’s revelations brought to light abhorrent violations of privacy on the part of the U.S. and U.K. governments. After all, the constitutionality of the NSA’s spying was critiqued in the article’s sidebar. Why not follow through to address the apparent contradiction between “good security practices” and the supposed “transparency” of agencies with the power to tap all our communications (including this one)?

William Gaver
London U.K.



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