Ed Snowden Covered His Tracks Well; How Many Other NSA Staffers Did The Same?

from the gone-baby-gone dept

As we've seen, the NSA's story on "abuses" keeps changing. First there were no abuses at all, then there were a whole lot of abuses (but all unintentional) and now we know that there also were a bunch of intentional abuses. But here's the thing: these are only the abuses that the NSA caught. And, even then it's sketchy. As Marcy Wheeler has detailed, many of the "unintentional abuses" look like they were merely classified that way, when, in reality, they may have been intentional. Thanks to the magic of the NSA's special dictionary, they redefine abuses that exceed legal authority but are "performing the mission that the NSA wants them to perform" not as "abuses" but as "mistakes."

Either way, that only counts the abuses and "mistakes" that the NSA's audits discover. As we pointed out, it appears the NSA still has no idea what Ed Snowden took, which calls into question how good these so-called "audits" are. The latest reports coming out reveal that Snowden carefully bypassed or deleted the logs concerning his downloading actions:
The U.S. government's efforts to determine which highly classified materials leaker Edward Snowden took from the National Security Agency have been frustrated by Snowden's sophisticated efforts to cover his digital trail by deleting or bypassing electronic logs, government officials told The Associated Press. Such logs would have showed what information Snowden viewed or downloaded.

The government's forensic investigation is wrestling with Snowden's apparent ability to defeat safeguards established to monitor and deter people looking at information without proper permission, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the sensitive developments publicly.
Remember when Snowden claimed that, from his desk, he could run searches on anyone, and various NSA defenders like Rep. Mike Rogers scoffed at the idea and called him a liar? They claimed that any such searches would turn up in the audits. But, of course, if you can delete the log files, then those audits are meaningless.

And, if Snowden could do it, it's very, very likely that he's not the only one employed by the NSA or contracting for the NSA who knows how to cover their digital trail. And that leads to a very obvious question: sure, the NSA knows about thousands of unintentional violations and a bunch of intentional violations -- but what about all the violations it has no idea about because someone was able to bypass or delete the log files? Given that NSA employees almost certainly know that searches are audited, you'd have to imagine that nearly everyone who decided to willfully violate the law to, say, spy on a love interest (hello: LOVINT) or, perhaps, a personal enemy, would also seek ways to do so without leaving an incriminating log file. Snowden's efforts show that's possible -- meaning that it's likely others knew that as well.

And, given that it appears that top NSA brass may have been taken by surprise by this rather basic revelation (no audits are perfect, and smart folks like ones the NSA employs often know how to get around such things), it seems quite likely that the number of intentional NSA violations is much, much, much higher than is being reported, in part because the NSA itself still hasn't been able to figure out what happened.


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  1.  
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    BentFranklin (profile), Aug 26th, 2013 @ 7:45am

    Abuses to spy on love interests, personal enemies, and the like are bad, but pedestrian.

    What I'm mostly concerned about are abuses at high level to spy on people who are supposed to provide whatever minimal checks and balances we still have on NSA.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 7:52am

    Smarter mice

    Apparently the government never learned - smarter mouse traps breed smarter mice.

    The only way to solve the problem for good is to remove the food source entirely.

    Anyone who has lived on a farm knows this.

     

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  3.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 7:57am

    Still not the point

    While this is all useful to prove that the NSA is an organization of lying incompetents, it is another distraction to the main point.

    Even if there had never been a single abuse, the surveillance program is still unconstitutional.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 8:07am

    Re: Still not the point

    That point was made, and it got the situation no where. Relentlessly beating on a point that those in power have chosen to ignore is rather pointless

     

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    Dave Xanatos, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 8:11am

    Re: Smarter mice

    Exactly. The problem isn't the audits, the oversight, the leakers, the love interest spying, the secret courts and secret laws or any of that. The problem is YOU HAVE THE DATA. You have information you have no business having. If it didn't exist as a collection (that you made) it would never ever be abused. And if the only way to get information that you need was through a narrowly defined court order, it would be much more difficult to abuse. And if all those orders were public, or at worst had a temporary seal, the likelihood of abuse is further diminished.

    tldr: don't collect more than you need, and stop doing things in secret and abuses go away.

    Addendum: Hollow Man was not a good movie, but I love this line from it: "It's amazing what you can do... when you don't have to look at yourself in the mirror any more." Hide everything and the mirror goes away along with the desire to follow all the little societal norms that enable trust to exist.

     

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    Tony T, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 8:15am

    Pretty good

    For a high school drop out with no real access to the high level secrets....I mean according to the government and MSM narrative.

     

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    out_of_the_blue, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 8:16am

    Google Engineer Fired For Spying On Teen Users; Serious Privacy Concerns Raised

    http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20100915/09333711025.shtml

    Auditing is intentionally easy to defeat because no spooks want to see more than a single bad ice cube in their iceberg of evil.

    And by the way, Snowden was not an "NSA staffer", merely a contract employee of Booz Hamilton, didn't have high privileges.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 8:22am

    Of course NSA employees are justified in spying on people like their ex-girl friends who cheated on them and then deleting the evidence!

    Who knows if your ex-girl friend might just be... an EVIL TERRORIST! After all, she left you for some guy with a beard! That's good enough evidence that she's into men who are terrorists!

     

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    Y, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 8:26am

    Unknown unknowns

    ...There are things we don't know we don't know...
    How good of Rumsfeld to have predicted this already.

     

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    out_of_the_blue, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 8:32am

    Another possibility is that they're simply lying that auditing even exists!

    No high manager -- already a knowing criminal running a spy network that definitely snoops on Congress and UN -- is going to want an audit trail, and of course WE don't have any way to check that there actually ever was such, so they can lie with impunity: we're merely assuming what WE'D do, and believing the assertions of criminals. Yot, even I began by assuming there IS an audit trail! -- As I told you, trust absolutely nothing and no one that's been anywhere near NSA. They're WAY ahead of us.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 8:39am

    LOL. I have redundant syslog servers for my lame setup that make me barely no money. You know, just in case. These cost next to nothing... just storage, and we all know they have plenty of that.

    Talk about epic failure. And these are the experts? Just wow.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 8:52am

    Re:

    Is this considered a perk along with getting drunk and singing karaoke?

     

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    madasahatter (profile), Aug 26th, 2013 @ 8:54am

    Flaw in the Audits

    You are assuming that logs are kept. If logging is minimized or not done then there is no trace.

    Alternatively if logs are deleted on a very regular basis, say every 8 hrs audit trails would be very difficult to reconstruct.

    Either way, it would be impossible to reconstruct what happened if the events occurred more than a few hours earlier.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 8:54am

    Re:

    Actually, they're running low on storage from saving all those cat videos on you tube for later research.

     

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    FarSide, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 9:06am

    ...said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the sensitive developments publicly.

    I love the officials who leak info about their efforts to get a guy who leaked info...

     

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  16.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 9:08am

    Re:

    How many NSA workers are taking contract "jobs" off the books? Individual searches could be worth millions to investors.

     

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    HappyBlogFriend (profile), Aug 26th, 2013 @ 9:11am

    Spying on leadership is a concern to people like us, but the Average Joe can't understand its effect. If you want to change his opinion, then you need a sensational story about the NSA spying on his wimmin.

     

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    Another AC, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 9:16am

    Re: Google Engineer Fired For Spying On Teen Users; Serious Privacy Concerns Raised

    Someone with very low privileges was able to spy on anyone and steal whatever he wanted? Ouch.

     

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    Hephaestus (profile), Aug 26th, 2013 @ 9:40am

    They probably are running huge drive arrays that do not have NTFS on them. Hence the lack of logging. Or maybe snowden had access to the backup system. Which would give him full access to pretty much anything.

    Or this being the government, they probably forgot to enable Auditing.

    Truth be told if he had access to the password files ... he could have pretended to be anyone after about a week of number crunching, faster if CUDA'd it.

     

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  20.  
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    The Original Anonymous Coward (profile), Aug 26th, 2013 @ 9:48am

    The answer was here earlier in Techdirt

    Remember this article?

    http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20130627/15455123642/former-east-german-stasi-officer-e xpresses-admiration-dismay-us-governments-surveillance-capabilities.shtml

    This is the best quote:

    Schmidt, 73, who headed one of the more infamous departments in the infamous Stasi, called himself appalled. The dark side to gathering such a broad, seemingly untargeted, amount of information is obvious, he said.

    “It is the height of naivete to think that once collected this information won’t be used,” he said. “This is the nature of secret government organizations. The only way to protect the people’s privacy is not to allow the government to collect their information in the first place.”

     

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  21.  
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    Steven (profile), Aug 26th, 2013 @ 9:48am

    "only the abuses that the NSA caught"

    You mean 'only the abuses the NSA has voluntarily admitted to, while our only means of verification is leaked documents.'

    Given that congress is only getting what information the NSA deems it needs, and the FISC is only getting the information the NSA gives it, there is (as far as I know) no oversight to the NSA that actually has access to information on the NSA that doesn't come from the NSA.

     

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  22.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 9:57am

    They have lied every step of the way. Everytime they've come out with a claim of we don't do that, the next day or two says, yeah they do do that.

    I now understand that there is no truth in these matters coming from official sources. So that means future releases attempting to cover it up or make it sound better; they are lies too. Creditability is nil. The time is long past when they could have told the truth. Now is too little, much too late.

    Congress will be coming back in session and they have frittered away what possible good will they could have had over coming clean with these security abuses. The question now is, how many changes, to whom, and how serious is congress about remaining in good light from their voters?

    It is very plain that status quo is no longer defensible and no longer justifiable.

     

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  23.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 10:08am

    I'm sure that covering your trail in the audit logs is part of the training. That's the nature of secrecy in a government organization that prides itself on eluding attention and capture.

     

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    vastrightwing, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 10:24am

    Drain the GAS!

    So the NSA wasn't totally full of bumbling idiots. It's clear one employee had some sense of what he was doing: he knew the system well enough to keep his trail clean. So much for the rest. They can't even lie well enough to make credible statements. They can't hide their own trail of miscreant deeds. So one lone wolf has the smarts to do what none of the other employees can do: hide their own tracks. Snowden needs to be the new head of the NSA. Clearly he has much more sense.

    To be fair, the NSA thought they were above reproach, above the law: safe. I think in the end, they may be. I believe the politicians will fabricate some excuse to absolve NSA and their ilk of the wrong doing. They will just keep coming up with new excuses, new definitions (a la Bill Clinton), new interpretations of the constitution and wear the citizens down. The media will continue to attack Snowden and vilify him, call him a traitor, etc, etc. Never will they ever admit the people who should be vilified are the ones who created this debacle in the first place: the people who lied and lied and kept secrets from its own citizens. No, that won't do. Attack the whistle blower instead. He's one target, as opposed to multitudes of duplicitous insiders who enabled this mess.

    My next question is what is Snowden not revealing to us? I see the current revelations like an ice berg: we can see the very top, but not the rest hidden under water. I think what we're seeing is only what's palatable to the public. I think what is hidden is so bad we don't have the imagination to consider it.

    My solution is easy. Defund. Remove the fuel. We can't undo what was done, but the machine is so big and so thirsty, defeating it is simple. Remove the gas, the money or whatever euphemism you want to call it. That will do just fine. It's completely simple and then the money can be put to better use.

     

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  25.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 10:25am

    I wonder how many NSA employees engaged in blackmail or corporate espionage? Would've been easy with that setup.

    Well, since they apparently don't create log backups or somesuch, I suppose we'll never know.

    (...Now I wonder how many of the top brass still defending the NSA's spying capabilities were making money from it on the side. Maybe the easily deletable logs were set up that way intentionally?)

     

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    haiku, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 10:44am

    Re: Pretty good

    He was also supposedly not noted for his hacking skills ... which leads one to wonder if he had assistance ?

     

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  27.  
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    DB, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 10:53am

    The press stories were written for a non-technical audience. The congressional briefings were probably at the same level.

    It's likely that searches were done through a designated application, which produced the logs and audit trail. If you didn't use that application, no logs were produced.

    This approach is pretty much required with massive databases. Imagine a 1TB database is on a network file system, and the whole database needs to be scanned to get possible matches. You can record the query, which is probably a single line of text, you can record the results, which could be millions of records with an unexpectedly loose search, or you can record ever block read, which would be a very large list of every block in the file.

    So it may be that the possible set of compromised files is every one that his machine had access to.

     

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  28.  
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    tqk (profile), Aug 26th, 2013 @ 11:15am

    Re: The answer was here earlier in Techdirt

    The only way to protect the people’s privacy is not to allow the government to collect their information in the first place.

    So, he's saying there is no way to prevent it since that's now proved to have failed to have any effect. Otherwise is like hoping for charity and mercy from a slavering predator as it circles you preparing to make a meal of you.

     

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  29.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 11:27am

    All it takes is one hacker to get access to the largest collection of data ever to completely fuck shit up. It's not a matter of if but when.

    Identity theft is already easy and you don't even need 100% correct information you just need the right support operator and it's all over. Social engineering can go a long way and with complete data any average Joe could pull it off with no social engineering skills period.

    Social engineering is far more than just lying to someone you're evaluating every little thing of the person you're talking with.

    Are they tired? This can be good or bad depending on the person and it's relatively easy to to judge if they are.

    Are you able to throw them off with questions about the company? If so it's very likely they're new.

    Can you make a personal connection with their personality?
    If so try bullshitting with them and if they're laughing you got them because they're connecting with you therefore lowering their guard. That means while you're scamming them all you have to do is keep them laughing while resetting data to give you fresh passwords even if I only knew about 40% of the security information. They'll chock it up to me being a moron who cannot remember their security info. It happens so much operators overlook that it's easily abused.

    It gets easier at the end of the week because they want to go home. Same goes for weekends because people hate working weekends.

    With perfect information I wouldn't have to do any of that to get what I wanted.
    In the past I've done this all in person almost flawless over 200 times. Although mine was not to seal identities, but to forge prescriptions for narcotic pain killers. They both work the same way.

    Now lets look at what happens when a leak happens. It's going to be nearly impossible to prove who you say you are unless it's in person. It would flip the online banking world upside down. Any website with account recovery options would be forced to disable it.

    That type of database should not exist EVER it's a fucking atomic bomb with with no visible timer.

     

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  30.  
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    That One Guy (profile), Aug 26th, 2013 @ 11:34am

    Re: Re: Pretty good

    No it's much funnier/worse, as if he's supposedly as bad as they are claiming by all those statements, that means that their system is such a joke that anyone could get into it.

     

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  31.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 11:41am

    Re: Re: Still not the point

    No it isn't pointless. It is the ENTIRE REASON that the leaks occurred in the first place and there is a story AT ALL. Ask yourself this, why exactly were those provisions added to the Constitution in the first place? The answer is EXACTLY to prevent the problems that are being revealed. They can try to dodge it and worm their way around it all they want but they can't escape it as long as the point keeps being raised.

     

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    HG, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 11:42am

    In a journalism textbook, this article would be an excellent example of shoddy reportage. Like many people covering this topic of late, Mr. Masnick unquestioningly accepts everything Mr. Snowden alleges as irrefutable fact. Mr. Masnick also speculates with utterly no attribution and then "reports" his own conclusions as "facts." The headline writer -- quite possibly not Mr. Masnick -- then compounds these flaws by making a factual assertion even Mr. Masnick's shoddy article does not proffer.

     

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  33.  
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    That One Guy (profile), Aug 26th, 2013 @ 12:44pm

    Re:

    You know, for all your claims about how Masnick is somehow wrong, I notice you didn't provide a single piece of counter-evidence, or even pointed to what he got wrong, but rather spent the entire comment just attacking his 'shoddy article' and him personally.

    Honestly, the NSA needs to pay you PR damage control guys more if this is the best they get currently...

     

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  34.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 12:50pm

    Re: Drain the GAS!

    "My solution is easy. Defund. Remove the fuel."

    I think it may be too late - we have passed the tipping point. Imagine what happens if a load of well paid spooks suddenly find themselves on the jobs market.
    Ability to infect and own a computer from the other side of the world is probably of little interest to Wallmart or McDonalds so there will suddenly be a large number of cyber-terrorists for hire, just as many former KGB operatives went into some very disreputable occupations when they lost their day jobs.
    I suggest that after de-funding the NSA the people who are let go either by the NSA or by private enterprise should be rendered immediately to Gitmo as they are much more likely to become terrorists than most of the current occupants.
    Is there an ice-cube's chance in Hell of this happening? I think not

     

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  35.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 12:53pm

    Re: Re: Drain the GAS!

    Phew, it's a good thing the NSA isn't planning to lay off 96% of the sys admins then - cuz those are the guys I'd be the most worried about.

     

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    cffrost, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 1:08pm

    Re: Re: Still not the point

    "That point was made, and it got the situation no where. Relentlessly beating on a point that those in power have chosen to ignore is rather pointless[.]"

    It most certainly is not pointless; rather, it is crucial (in my opinion) to continue to communicate that Constitutional violations may not be swept aside in favor of the endless lies, equivocating, and instances of limited-hangout they're selling us as a distraction.

    To play along with their charade is tantamount to saying (during an imaginary murder trial), "Alright, enough about the murder of your wife — we really need to talk about the verbal abuse. What were the arguments about, and had you ever been drunk on those occasions? These are the important matters to focus on."

     

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  37.  
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    FreeRadical, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 1:11pm

    Re: Google Engineer Fired For Spying On Teen Users; Serious Privacy Concerns Raised

    What the bloody hell is the NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY doing hiring "contractors" to man their stations?! What, they couldn't find competent help through the normal channels?! i.e Ivy League schools...

     

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    fjpoblam, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 3:30pm

    Our government inaction

    The NSA didn't lie, except when it did, in which case it was lying about not having lied, which was a mistaken lie, not an intentional lie because it was taken the wrong way, which means it wasn't a lie at all, even though it was, which it is not to say that it wasn't. Did I say something?

     

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    The Original Anonymous Coward (profile), Aug 26th, 2013 @ 4:07pm

    Re: Re: The answer was here earlier in Techdirt

    What he's saying is that once the government (or any other organization or person for that matter) has information, there is the tendency to use it for purposes other than for what it was originally collected. This is human nature.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 4:24pm

    false assumption #1: Snowden covered his tracks well. Was he actually there long enough to do it well?
    false assumption #2: There were tracks to hide. How good or poorly is NSA actually tracking data access? It's been sounding like a free-for-all without any tracking at all.

     

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  41.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 4:46pm

    Re:

    I can see it now:

    Manager: "Hey you, sysadmin, can you get me a log of everything any sysadmin has ever accessed? I need to find out who has access what and when."

    Sysadmin: "You want a log of everything I've ever touched?... HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Oh sorry, I couldn't help myself..."

     

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  42.  
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    Martin Le, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 5:16pm

    Justice

    The NSA got what was coming to them, filthy pigs. Good job Snowden.

     

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    toyotabedzrock (profile), Aug 26th, 2013 @ 10:44pm

    Hint - Who administers your logs

    Basically I have been saying this over and over. He deleted logs, someone has to administer those things too.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 27th, 2013 @ 7:17am

    Snowden a Liability

    No country is actually admiring snowden for turncoating against America or the US government. Snowden is just a thorn, a prick in the system and as soon as the damage control stops the bleeding and the wound heals, he will find that he is nothing more than a liability to these countries sheltering him now.

     

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    BentFranklin (profile), Aug 27th, 2013 @ 8:41am

    Re: Re:

    Exactly.

    Whether your bogeyman of choice is George Soros or the Koch Brothers, I'm certain that they have their fingers in the NSA, most likely through contacts that their private security people have.

    This is not about some LOVINT abuses. This is about a new class divide between the knows and the know-nots.

     

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    nasch (profile), Aug 27th, 2013 @ 10:08am

    Re:

    I have redundant syslog servers for my lame setup that make me barely no money. You know, just in case. These cost next to nothing... just storage, and we all know they have plenty of that.

    Talk about epic failure. And these are the experts? Just wow.


    Redundant log backups alone don't protect against this situation if the same person has access to both sets of logs. It would need to be set up so that the admins who have access to the primary logs do not have access to the backups, and vice versa. I'm not sure how easy that is to do, but apparently beyond the capability (or interest) of the NSA. Presumably they'll be looking into it now.

     

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  47.  
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    BentFranklin (profile), Aug 28th, 2013 @ 10:27am

    Re:

    I'm sure Average Joe can understand that perfectly well.

     

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  48.  
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    John Rocha, Jr., Oct 29th, 2013 @ 2:43pm

    Re: The answer was here earlier in Techdirt

    These questions about permissions really irk me. And the questions about the release of information that you aren't ever supposed to know or have any ideas about bother me greatly because there are no defenses against misuse of such information. I am allowing that the privacy issues that IT have about this are not really private but in such csses the longer the association the greater the chances for inference of those things you aren't supposed to know. Do you see how imaginative this is? I have 40 yesrs behind me involvjng schizophrenia. If the NSA is so secret then you might be able to see some of my own issues about playing God and exactly what God is. E Snowden is being very explicit about what he knows and what he has discovered, but what of the implicit ideas that the NSA has educatsd him about these very ideas.IDEAS am personally very sensitized about questions that aren't answerable by anyone that should be answerable at an explicit level of awareness. He violated his oath

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  49.  
    identicon
    John Rocha, Jr., Oct 29th, 2013 @ 3:04pm

    I have a simple problem with all of this reportage. It is a charade to seek information. The dates and times are off and they are very current and the sensitivity of the system I am using...
    What implicitness are you inferring about my explicitness?
    Ignorance is bliss? You sure could fool me.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  50.  
    identicon
    John Rocha, Jr., Oct 29th, 2013 @ 3:26pm

    I have a simple problem with all of this reportage. It is a charade to seek information. The dates and times are off and they are very current and the sensitivity of the system I am using...
    What implicitness are you inferring about my explicitness? Maybe you and I aren't just machine, excuse me, artificial intelligences.
    Ignorance is bliss? You sure could fool me.
    In this world you have to know what is happening before you can defend. But where are the proofs?
    Agencies like the NSA have them.The machines that these agents work on are always in jeopardy every moment they live. It becomes easier with experience to become slotted into someone's drawer in a typical bureaucratic sense.
    If you are working for the government you cannot abet anyone that runs the risk of taking money from her. It means the security of a position in jeopardy. If you are this person then it means your financial security. And God forbid, we can't change that.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  51.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 29th, 2013 @ 3:33pm

    Re: Re: Re: Still not the point

    The partial problem is these problems did not exist when the constitution was written. Those people were not unintelligent. They tried to anticipate the social problems as they would exist for their era and anticipate what these are today but computers did not exist then and neither were there any televisions or radios or cars.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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