Rise of the low-level contractor with high-level access

Man in front of computer screens - posed photo

Intelligence agencies collect reams of personal data from our everyday interactions. And as the amount of data increases, so has the number of people who work with this sensitive information. Who are they?

Edward Snowden says he is just an average guy.

"I'm no different from anybody else," says Snowden, an infrastructure analyst who worked for the US consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton. "I don't have special skills."

Just an ordinary computer guy, who worked in unusual offices that tapped into data from phone calls, emails, status updates and browsing histories of those who roused suspicion.

Snowden's decision to reveal classified information puts him in an exclusive club. Another member, Pte Bradley Manning, is facing a military trial. Both could be sent to prison for the rest of their lives.

Booz Allen and its biggest client

  • Private company that specialises in managing large amounts of collected data
  • Biggest customer is US government
  • Headquarters in Virginia - about 13 miles from Washington DC
  • Almost 25,000 staff - 76% have government security clearances, of which 49% are Top Secret or higher, notes its 2012 annual report
  • James Clapper, director of national intelligence (DNI), is ex-Booz Allen executive
  • Vice-chairman Mike McConnell was George W Bush's DNI

Their actions shed light on the new world of espionage. As data becomes digitized, more people have access to it.

"Documents don't have to be stored in a filing cabinet," says Amie Stepanovich of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

"They can be stored on a government server that can be accessed throughout the world."

So in an age of metadata and cloud computing, how do officials make sure that sensitive information does not fall into the wrong hands?

Snowden had access to classified information because of his security clearance.

Start Quote

If a guy pretty low on the food chain knows this, it tells you how big the food chain is”

End Quote Thomas Donnelly

A clearance does not give contractors carte blanche. Officials say, for example, that theoretically Snowden should not have had been able to see the leaked document, an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Yet he could see a lot.

And he is in good company. More than a million contractors have access to classified information, says Angela Canterbury of the Project on Government Oversight.

As one analyst says, "This is Washington DC. You can't swing a dead cat without hitting someone with a security clearance. I mean - everyone's got one."

The fact that Snowden is undistinguished is reassuring, says the American Enterprise Institute's Thomas Donnelly.

Who is Edward Snowden?

Edward Snowden
  • Age 29, grew up in North Carolina
  • Joined army reserves in 2004, discharged four months later, says the Guardian
  • First job at National Security Agency was as security guard
  • Worked on IT security at the CIA
  • Left CIA in 2009 for contract work at NSA for various firms including Booz Allen
  • Called himself Verax, Latin for "speaking the truth", in exchanges with the Washington Post

"It suggests that what he knows isn't as important as advertised. If a guy pretty low on the food chain knows this, it tells you how big the food chain is."

And analysts have worked with contractors such as Snowden - and large data sets - for years.

"I could be wrong - maybe I should watch more Fox News - but I haven't seen anything that is fundamentally different than what we have been doing since 9/11," says Doug Brooks, president emeritus of International Peace Operations Association, which represents security firms.

Former CIA technology officer Gene Poteat agrees with Snowden's assessment that he is nothing special.

"He's a loser," Poteat says. As a former federal employee, he has a low opinion of those who reveal state secrets.

The problem lies not with Snowden, he says, but with the officials who granted him access.

"I think the government shares some responsibility for what happened.

"They should have known better."

What could the NSA possibly access?

More on Prism and privacy protection

Man on phone

Phone calls

  • Where calls are made
  • Call duration
  • Phone numbers of both parties
  • But not content of the call
  • Unclear if text messages are included
Blackberry user

Email

  • Most providers require users to sign up with name, address, birth date
  • Inbox and outbox content
  • Details of contacts
  • Email threads and chat conversations
  • IP addresses
Facebook

Social media

  • Most providers require users to sign up with name, address, birth date and gender
  • Updates, photos and chat conversations
  • Details of contacts
  • Location information if mobile device used

People are divided about the role of contractors - and about Snowden. Some call him a hero. Others vilify him.

Private Bradley Manning and Wikileaks

Bradley Manning's cuffed hands
  • Age 25, grew up in Oklahoma
  • Intelligence analyst in the US Army with access to highly sensitive information
  • Was relatively low-ranking and on meagre wage
  • Pleaded guilty to leaking sensitive documents and other files from military servers
  • Court martial opened last week

Yet they agree on one thing. Espionage now means people like him are part of the system. Lots of people.

"As you get more data, you need more people to manage it," says Christopher Soghoian, a technologist for the ACLU.

"You need administrators to help people get access to the data. There's not really any way to protect yourself from an insider."

Donnelly agrees - and is not bothered.

"To some degree this is going to be the cost of doing business in data mining.

"They're not giving away the crown jewels of the intelligence agencies. These leaks are painful but not devastating."

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