On Edward Snowden's Importance

On Edward Snowden's Importance

Nextgov has a rundown of Sonia Brindi’s (Globo) interview with Edward Snowden. His narcissism is, once again, on full display:

The public’s bewilderment is misplaced, Snowden replied. “There’s sort of been a misinformation occurring in the U.S. media, that was then propagated by the international media, which was that I was some low-level employee, I didn’t really have any understanding of these materials,” he said. “I had functioning at a very senior level. I’ve written policies on behalf of the United States. I had been in meetings with the very top technical officials on the NSA and the CIA.” Snowden had more responsibility at the NSA than people may think, he said. “I was what’s called a systems administrator or a superuser, which means that I had more access than almost any other official in the intelligence community,” he said. “Because even the director of the National Security Agency or the Central Intelligence Agency or any of these things, when they want to see some documents, when they want to understand some program, they have to ask someone: ‘Show me this, tell me about this, brief this for me.’ ” And that someone was Snowden. “As a systems administrator, you are the person who can see all of that, because you are the one who controls all of the information.”

Almost any sysadmin will tell you that, while their jobs are important, having expanded access to their company’s information is not an indicator of their specific importance to their organization or its mission. Access is a technical necessity. It is a function of the job. An administrator may have access to their organization’s inner workings but they do not pull the strings. This is equivalent to a White House plumber claiming executive authority. You are in the building. You do not own it.

The same can be said for writing “policies on behalf of the United States” or attending meetings “with the very top technical officials on the NSA and the CIA”. Did Snowden craft high-level policy or technical policy? The gulf between the two is astronomically enormous. And writing technical policies is very often just part of the job. In fact, it’s a part of the job that most technical people absolutely hate and go out of their way to avoid doing.

I was a sysadmin for NASA in the nineties. During that time I had access to vast amounts of technical data about the Shuttle Program. I attended meetings with executives and high-level NASA officials. I even wrote policies, if you want to get technical about it, on behalf of the United States. Was my job important? Yes. Was I an astronaut or rocket scientist? No. These distinctions seem lost on Snowden. He appears desperate to paint himself as a high-level U.S. intelligence official when in reality he is just a regular guy who leveraged a poorly designed system and misplaced trust to betray his county.