Edward Snowden has said that his objective in stealing an
enormous number of classified documents from the NSA was to let people know
about the invasions of privacy by that agency. He says he has handed over all
his materials to several journalists, and it is up to them to decide what is
newsworthy and how to write their stories.
The Guardian, Der Speigel, the New York Times, the
Washington Post, and ProPublica all have parts or all of the stolen files.
Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, now part of Pierre Omidyar’s First Look
Media, also have files.
The stories have been coming out a few a week. The material
is not easy to report on, some of it highly technical and all of it embedded in
a highly secret context. Confirmation, for which most newspapers require at
least two independent sources, is difficult.
Reporters like to follow a narrative, and Snowden’s claim
that he wants to open a discussion of how Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights
may have been breached is an attractive one. Many of the articles have followed
that narrative, although it often misleads. The David Sanger and Thom Shanker
Devises Radio Pathway Into Computers”
in the New York Times starts misleading
with the headline (which an editor, rather than Sanger and Shanker, probably
The headline sounds like NSA is reaching out toward
computers, even your computer, with radio waves to snatch your data. The
article says otherwise, although you have to read carefully to know that.
Continuing the headline, the first paragraph says that the
NSA “has implanted software in nearly 100,000 computers.” The second paragraph
hurries by the fact that physical access is required for that implanting to
focus on “a secret technology that enables it to enter and alter data in
computers even if they are not connected to the Internet.” The third paragraph
finally mentions that the radio waves are coming from the altered computers,
into which hardware has been installed.
The headline and first two paragraphs set up the idea that
the NSA is using radio waves to get into computers not connected to the
internet to implant software. Sanger and Shanker, I’m sure, would point out
that that is not what they said. And that is correct. But figuring that out
takes a much more careful reading than most people give newspaper articles.
The article goes on to another subject: why the NSA wants to
be able to tap computers not connected to the internet. That allows the initial
mistaken impression to settle into one’s brain. We think of the connected
internet and wifi in ways that make it easy to continue thinking that the NSA
can reach out by radio waves to MY computer.
Then the targets of this technology are enumerated: units of
the Chinese Army, Russian military networks, systems used by the Mexican police
and drug cartels, trade institutions inside the European Union, and Saudi
Arabia, India and Pakistan. Oh.
Next is a graphic titled “How the N.S.A. Uses Radio
Frequencies to Penetrate Computers.” NSA, reaching into your computer. But the
graphic itself shows that a piece of hardware, barely mentioned until then, is
required to transmit signals from the bugged computer to a field station. “Penetrate,”
however, still sounds like those radio waves/frequencies are reaching out from
There is no evidence that the
N.S.A. has implanted its software or used its radio frequency technology inside
the United States…
“N.S.A.'s activities are focused
and specifically deployed against — and only against — valid foreign
intelligence targets in response to intelligence requirements,” Vanee Vines, an
agency spokeswoman, said in a statement. “We do not use foreign intelligence
capabilities to steal the trade secrets of foreign companies on behalf of — or
give intelligence we collect to — U.S. companies to enhance their international
competitiveness or increase their bottom line.”
The article goes on to other issues – President Obama’s
speech, encryption – and then a confusing paragraph on internet cables that
implies, without saying, that these radio devices have been planted on the
cables. This ties back, for those of us who have been following the many
Snowden-related articles, to something about tapping cables. Is this how it was
done? Or is this something else? Sanger and Shanker don’t tell us. This information comes from a map that
they don’t show.
And then we are told that the United States has two centers
in China from which “it can insert malware into computers.” So the Chinese are
sweeping their computers for radio emissions and trying to find where those
emissions are being picked up.
The article refers to radio waves, once to radio
frequencies. This sounds, to a technically trained person, a bit tinfoil-hatty.
A technical person would more likely talk about radio transmissions. Radio
transmissions are used for a great many things
garage door openers, wifi, Bluetooth, cell phones, microwave ovens, traffic
radar, GPS. The phrase “radio waves” is no-fault: it doesn’t say where the
waves are coming from. “Radio transmissions” would implies a transmitter, the
existence of which, in the bugged computer, the article seems to want to avoid.
The relay station is said to “attack” the computer, although
its function seems to be the passive one of picking up transmissions. It may
also send malware back to the transmitting computer. The article is unclear
If this article were structured honestly, it would start
with something about a technology that the US was using in response to Chinese attempts
to penetrate US computer networks and that could even be used to get computers
not on the internet to “report back” to the NSA. But that would not follow the
narrative of damaged Fourth Amendment rights.
The article winds up with the assertion that the “The
hardware in the N.S.A.'s catalog” was the means for inserting Stuxnet into
Iranian computers controlling their centrifuges. No source or confirmation is
given for this assertion, which seems to be a connection Sanger and Shanker
have made. The story of the rock in Iran that exploded into circuit boards is
repeated. Was that in FARS news, which is mentioned in the last paragraph? The
just told us
that Edward Snowden revealed that the Earth is run by tall
Other stories from the Snowden material have followed a
similar narrative and have been equally misleading. Many, like this one, reveal
techniques that are used against other countries. Many, like this one, are
inaccurate: although the impression is given that NSA is reaching into
computers with radio waves, the fact is that the computer must be equipped with
a special transmitter. And only 100,000 computers have been so equipped. That
seems like a big number, but there are over one billion personal computers in
use in the world. That’s .01% of all personal computers. And even this article
says that none of them are in the United States.
It’s necessary to read the articles on the Snowden material
very carefully. Like Gwen Ifill doesn’t do in this
interview of Sanger
. The job of reporters is to make complex things
understandable. When they tie themselves to Snowden’s narrative, they add
complexity and confusion. We shouldn’t have to read their articles like legal
documents. But that’s what I’ve found necessary in every article I’ve read on
the Snowden material.