If you tell enough stories, perhaps the moral will show up.


"Edward Snowden"

I have been enjoying a lurid TV spy drama series called The Americans very much lately, so it's just possible that everything I have to say here is the result of too much stimulation and late night TV...

I think that the whole Edward Snowden business smells very ratty indeed. Apparently he's on his way to Venezuela now, where he will, if he is lucky, spend the whole of the rest of his life hoping for a presidential pardon. Perhaps he will be consoled by his distraught pole-dancing girlfriend, and the occasional visit from Glen Greenwald. Or perhaps, and this is my expectation, on a day when the news is all elsewhere, he will disappear, and a few months later, someone looking like, but not too much like, him will walk into a well-remunerated, under-worked job at some sleepy agency of the US government.

Yes, I think this is an operation. I'm not certain, and I'm somewhat less certain that Snowden knows it, but it seems the most likely explanation. There are three factors to this:

  1. The ridiculous melodrama: The girlfriend; The anguished father; The extraordinary claims of access; The cogent, rather rehearsed, interviews and the round-the-world tour. Snowden makes Assange look small-time.
  2. The banality of the limited, studiously-vague, revelations. The internet is tapped. Of course it is. That is why we encrypt. Telephone metadata is passed on. That's horrible, but I can't claim to be surprised. Nothing to throw a career away over, except for one thing:
  3. The claim that GCHQ can read Blackberry handsets. This is a huge deal, if they're referring to users connected to a Blackberry Enterprise system. The BES lets security-concious managers screw handsets down so tight that it's well-nigh impossible to get spyware on to them, and the telecoms operators don't have access to the keys of what is widely acknowledged to be a sound cryptosystem. Breaking that, reliably, is a massive success and yet it's thrown away as a minor point in one of the Guardian's articles.
 The Blackberry thing is so huge that I can't help seeing it as the main motive. BES-managed Blackberries must have been a thorn in the side of communications spies for a long time. Breaking them means breaking the standard encryption algorithms, which can perhaps be done, on a huge scale, which probably can't, or alternatively, it means suborning the administrators of every government and diplomatic BES installation, which would be laborious and unreliable. It would be easier for everyone if diplomats and civil servants could be persuaded to just stop using them.

Now the thing is, if that was my job, if I wanted to get adversaries off their BBs onto something I could tap, I would probably start with exactly this revelation. It wouldn't be true, but once it reached enough security officers, by a means that persuaded them they weren't supposed to know it, they would soon be doing my job for me. A leak, with some colour to make it plausible, wrapped up in enough spurious content that the gem -- as my targets would see it -- has to be dug for, is exactly the way to go. Of course, there's nothing to stop other reasons being true too. We could well also be looking at an opinion-testing exercise, a realisation that the phone and Internet tapping was going to leak at some time, and this at least puts it under some kind of control, and there may be other motives as well. But the basic structure, a controlled leak and a discredit for Blackberry is the core, and that is what I think Snowden, whether he knows it or not, is up to.