Snowden's 'Dead Man's Switch' May Just Make Him A Bigger Target

from the forcing-the-government-to-protect-its-'enemy' dept

Word has it that Ed Snowden has gone all George Smiley and implemented his version of a “dead man’s switch,” one that will lead directly to a full data dump if anything unpleasant happens to him. What’s in these yet-unleaked documents is still a mystery, although Snowden has claimed they provide a “blueprint” of the NSA’s surveillance architecture, one that could be probed for weaknesses or replicated.

[S]nowden… reportedly passed encrypted copies of his cache to a number of third parties who have a non-journalistic mission: If Snowden should suffer a mysterious, fatal accident, these parties will find themselves in possession of the decryption key, and they can publish the documents to the world.

Obviously, Snowden has set this up to prevent the US from deciding to simply take him out, rather than risk any more leaks. This conceivably shifts priorities for the US, which now must take care to ensure Snowden remains unharmed. (It’s not explicitly stated whether an arrest or successful extradition to the US will trigger the “switch.”) Notably, Snowden doesn’t actually have to die to set things in motion.

“It’s not just a matter of, if he dies, things get released, it’s more nuanced than that,” he said. “It’s really just a way to protect himself against extremely rogue behavior on the part of the United States, by which I mean violent actions toward him, designed to end his life, and it’s just a way to ensure that nobody feels incentivized to do that.”

Bruce Schneier, however, sees how this “insurance plan” could actually make things more dangerous for Snowden.

I’m not sure he’s thought this through, though. I would be more worried that someone would kill me in order to get the documents released than I would be that someone would kill me to prevent the documents from being released. Any real-world situation involves multiple adversaries, and it’s important to keep all of them in mind when designing a security system.

This could make Snowden a target for people whose motivations run from the anti-American (exposed documents will hurt the US) to those who view chaos as its own end (exposed documents will wreak further mayhem in governments worldwide). This sort of action is probably more limited to individual actors rather than agents of unhappy/rival states.

If someone did manage to take him out, all eyes would turn to the US government. Whether the government did or didn’t do it doesn’t matter. It will be assumed it was ordered by the US. And whether or not the US government was behind it, it will issue a denial. This denial, of course, won’t be believed because at this point, the government has the credibility of a heroin addict.

If the government has taken any of the above into consideration, it’s back to having to ensure Snowden remains unharmed and safe, something made even more difficult by Snowden inadvertently painting a target on his own back.

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Comments on “Snowden's 'Dead Man's Switch' May Just Make Him A Bigger Target”

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That One Guy (profile) says:


You know, the simple fact that a whistlblower like Snowden even feels the need for a dead man’s switch like that says so many things about the US/NSA’s reputation these days, none of it good.

I do however quite like the idea that due to the presence of it, the absolute best thing the US could do for damage control would be to issue a full pardon or whatever the legal term would be, and get him back to the US to protect him(though I still hold that coming back to the US, even in those conditions, would be a bad choice, due to the previously mentioned reputation), and barring that to assign guards to protect him wherever he goes.

That has got to be causing some serious frustration and anger among the USG/NSA.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: ...

‘Would you trust a pardon issued by the US government, especially if it only covered the whistle blowing.’

Where I in his shoes? Not in the slightest, hence my belief that pardon or not he’d still have to be pretty stupid to willingly put himself within reach of the USG. We are after all talking about a group of people that freaked out over a press conference, the idea that they wouldn’t do their best to make damn sure he could never spill any sensitive secrets, pardon or no, would be naive in the extreme.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: ...

Bit of a difference though. From what I gather, the info that is being leaked exposes illegal actions or makes some people or groups look… less than good, but not much beyond that.

The info that’s being held back as insurance though is apparently sensitive enough to cause some serious havoc, up to and including compromising NSA security worldwide, so even with the current leaks continuing it would be very much in the US/NSA’s best interests to make sure the more damning info doesn’t come out.

out_of_the_blue says:

IF Snowden actually even HAD such info at one time,

then EVERY foreign intelligence agency would be trying to grab him. Be easy to torture him until he revealed who has it now, then grab them too. Analysis as if legal niceties would be meticulously followed by SPIES is childish. Russia has had nearly unlimited chance to grab him and say he requested asylum, BUT HAVE NOT. As I said, anything short of nuclear war would be worth the risk, IF what Snowden has or even knows the outlines of was as damaging as claimed.

It’s what has NOT happened that’s the real indicator: just keeps pointing up that theater is the most important part. It’s a limited hangout psyop.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: IF Snowden actually even HAD such info at one time,

The US reaction to a data dump triggered by a foreign country is a deterrent to to them trying to grab Ed Snowdon. Further all the major players probably know how NSA works, and what its capabilities are, especially given the numbers that work directly or indirectly for NSA it will be well infiltrated by agents.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: IF Snowden actually even HAD such info at one time,

Alternatively, since something like 1.6 million people have the same level of clearance that Snowden had, it seems quite likely that all interested nations — Russia, China, Israel, etc. — have already gotten whatever NSA information that they want from their spies.

Which would make the Snowden controversies all about politics, spin, and keeping the public ignorant, and NOT about actual national security.

SeanSatori (profile) says:

Snowden is smart

but it is obvious he didn’t think a lot of this through. It doesn’t appear he even remotely considered that the U.S. would deny him the ability to travel internationally (to the point of downing foreign dignitaries planes searching for him).

That said, I doubt Snowden has any of the remaining information in his possession on him. Not, at least, physically. Where the information is at the moment is probably the #1 priority of NSA analysts seeking to track him.

Paul says:

Speaking as a 100% Disabled and Decorated US Naval Viet Nam Veteran who loves his Country but hates its current Government: My hope is that Snowden lives to see how his leaked info helps change the world into a better place for us all to live. Snowden is a true “Global Hero” no matter what my current and very corrupt USA Government says. With luck on our side this might become the start of a general revolt of the American people against their out of control and criminal elected and appointed officials. Long live Snowden & his legacy…..

Anonymous Coward says:

I have to admit that I agree that Snowden has just made himself a target for other, more zealous fanatical groups who would want to embarrass the U.S. Government.

The problem is that because of the over-zealousness of the Obama Administration and the near cult-like behavior of the Democratic Party, all blame will automatically fall on Democrats if anything happens to Snowden.

Not only would the U.S. Government have to ensure Snowden’s safety but they would also have to prevent any plots against Snowden to assassinate the man.

Whether the U.S. Government takes him our, permanently, or not, the U.S. Government will still be blamed for Snowden’s death. lols

God, you have got to appreciate the irony and what’s worse than that? It will surely galvanize every American in the United States to taking up Snowden’s cause and create a massive movement against the U.S. Government.

Bob says:

He already lied

Snowden is admitted liar, he signed a confidentiality agreement and broke it. He lied to the people employing him. He went to two communist countries (where people are monitored and watched 24-7. Personally, I would not believe anything he says, he holds no credibility here. He is a narcissist who left here out of control. Every industrialized country spies, shock, newsflash……

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: He already lied

The Government is not violating the Constitution, the Government has the right (by the constitution) to interpret it as required to suit the situation.

Yes, the Government has the Constitutional right to vary the constitution that governs the Government.

It’s exactly what the founders and framers of the Constitution intended.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: He already lied

So in other words might makes right, and those in power are completely incapable of actually breaking any rules or laws, as they can just change them to make their actions legal and okay after the fact…

And you honestly see no problem with this line of thought, or wonder why the people, who the government is supposed to represent, might be less than thrilled by a zero-accountability government?

MarcAnthony (profile) says:

Re: He already lied

At no time has Snowden admitted to lying. Breaking a confidentiality agreement is merely a breach of contract, and, if the contract contemplates an illegality, it is void. He has more credibility than the US government, which is caught spying on its own citizens and attempting to punish the person who exposed their illegal activity. Edward had to flee as a direct consequence of the current social forces in the US.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: He already lied

liar, thief, blackmailer and extortionist.

He’s working hard to become a saboteur, and a traitor as well.

He’s gone from releasing general information “for the good of the nation” to threatening specific and detailed operational information that will enable other groups to set up similar systems, and will render any investments by NSA useless.

That is sabotage, and specifically intended to be done “if he does not get his way”, So for personal gain, (extortion and blackmail).

There is a lot of difference between “I have information the people should know”, to ” I have information that WILL hurt the US and it’s interests” “that I will release if I don’t get my way”.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: He already lied

And by ‘get his way’ you mean ‘isn’t killed or imprisoned without trial by the US’ right, because that’s the purpose behind a dead-man switch like this, telling the US that if an ‘unfortunate accident’ were to befall him, the more sensitive stuff will come out.

Also of note this information wouldn’t hurt the US and it’s interests, but that of those in power who’s dirty little deeds would be exposed, and while that would do some damage to the US’s credibility(assuming it still has any anyway, hypocrites are not held in high regard usually), that would only be a side effect.

Now the NSA would certainly be facing some rather large problems if that more sensitive information were to be released, but given that’s a group that believes that it is completely above the law, and can do whatever it wants with zero real oversight, you’ll forgive me if I don’t shed too many tears over any woes they may face.

Anonymous Coward says:

Snowden, seems to be the real deal and he sounds pretty hardcore and prepared to die. Snowden gave up a well paying job banking 200 grand a year, living in Hawaii, just to tell average citizens around the entire world about the surveillance world we’re living in.

I think Snowden would prefer to filter through the leak information himself, instead of just throwing everything out there and endangering government agents.

Either way it seems the information is going to come out. Whether that information is filtered or not, will probably depend on what happens to Snowden.

It’s a rather ingenious plan. The only catch is you have accept the fact that you’re already a dead-man walking. Not too many people can resign themselves to fate like that.

Snowden seems pretty fearless to me.

haiku says:

A dead man’s switch is, by definition, something that is monitored continuously.

Snowden doesn’t have to be bumped off for the switch to fire and release the documents: all that is necessary is for Snowden to be prevented from resetting the switch on a regular basis.

Given that he “taught people how to keep such information from being compromised even in the highest threat counter-intelligence environments” – and that he had unlimited time to prepare – I would be amazed if he was carrying any of the information with him: it is more likely stored around the world.

Maybe on Kim Dotcom’s servers ? 8)

Jim (profile) says:

How I would do it

Snowden has said that his preparations are more subtle than a deadman switch. What would be very useful for him is to have timed release of data over which he would have no control. So someone could grab Snowden torture him and it would be pointless because he himself would not be able to stop the release of data. The train will just keep going down the track.

Tice with a J (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I give Snowden the benefit of the doubt here. What nations can he turn to for support here? As many have pointed out, there are very few countries today that aren’t oppressing their own people in ways similar to what Snowden exposed, and there are very few countries that can stand up to the overwhelming might of the United States. He had to leave the United States, but where could he go? I still don’t know of any good options for him now.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: blackmail and extortion

You know, I’m getting the strangest sense of deja vu here with how easily you’re throwing around those terms, you wouldn’t happen to be related to the ‘brilliant’ individual that was screaming about ‘Extortion!’ when people were talking about boycotting GoDaddy during the SOPA mess, are you?

Also, nice ad hom at the end there, that’ll really convince people. /s

Anonymous Coward says:

Where is the line for you ?

At what point does Snowden go from being a whistle blower releasing information for the purpose of informing the US people able activities he does not agree with, to someone who threatens or released detailed operational information that WILL render the Government and Agencies less effective, and using that information and the threat of that information for his own personal gains ?

Releasing specific and detailed operational information is sabotage and clearly treason.

So at some point he crosses that line, where is that line for you ??

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Where is the line for you ?

Oh it exists, and it’s as follows:

Does the actions of the whistlblower make non-US interests look bad, or US interests look good? Then they are brave and noble people, risking their livelihoods and potentially their lives to expose corrupt or criminal actions.

On the other hand, do the actions of the whistlblower make US interests, people or groups look bad? Then they are traitors, criminals and deserve the harshest punishments possible.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Where is the line for you ?

Alright then, for this to be extortion, what gains are you referring to?

Can’t be money, if the info is really that valuable he could make a mint selling it to every country around, but he hasn’t.

Can’t be a nice home and life, he had that before he leaked the information, so he’d be at best breaking even on that deal.

Could be to keep the US from doing anything rash, though after getting the plane of another country’s president grounded because Snowden might have been on board I’d say the US is way past that stage, and even then that would fall under ‘self-defense’ rather than ‘extortion’.

So I ask you, you say he is practicing extortion and blackmail, what is he trying to gain that he didn’t have before, and that isn’t simply a matter of self-defense?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Where is the line for you ?

Alright then, for this to be extortion, what gains are you referring to?

Freedom from prosecution, freedom from persecution, fame, money, notoriety.

What is he trying to gain that he did not have before, how about his freedom, he is blackmailing because he said that is what he will do, he is even willing to give up asylum to allow him to continue to release information, or to threaten their release if his demands are not met.

That’s blackmail.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Where is the line for you ?

it’s about his justification for his actions, it’s no longer the justification to inform the public about wrong doings, it’s about releasing the information for personal or political gains. There is a clear difference in the justifications of his actions.

The later is far worse, and is not altruistic it has deliberate intent, stated by Snowden himself. It’s something he can THREATEN others with, and that is exactly what he is doing.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Where is the line for you ?

‘Freedom from prosecution’

If you think the deck is going to be stacked against you, and believe you’d get anything but a fair trial, that’s a smart move, not a criminal one.

‘freedom from persecution’

Well considering the USG is doing everything they can to make him out to be worse than a mass murdering child molester, if that’s one of the ‘gains’ you’re talking about then obviously it’s not working.


I refer you to the ‘make him out to be worse than a mass murdering child molester’ line above, the US’ own actions have spread his name far more than anything he’s done or said.


Already addressed this, if he was after money he’d have it in spades by now from selling the data, and he certainly wouldn’t have gone public with having done so if a quick buck was his goal.

‘his freedom’

He had that before going public with the leaks, so he’d at best be breaking even, which makes claiming that as a goal completely ridiculous.

Again, you keep going on and on about ‘if his demands aren’t met’, but all he’s said is that if the US does anything to him the info will be released, that’s it, and that’s not a demand for action, it’s a ‘demand’ for a lack of it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Robert Hanson

Did FAR WORSE, did the US ‘spies’ kill or hurt him ?

He was given a trail, and the US acted as they should, why would you think it would be different for this idiot.

You must be SO paranoid, and Snowden must be so stupid to not look at the US’s historical conduct in these types of things.

Anonymous Coward says:

Ok Manning

So he is getting a trial, he is facing his accusers, he is not being assassinated, not it appears he’s being publicly persecuted. By all accounts he is receiving a fair trial in accordance with your justice system.

Snowden is on the run, and residing in RUSSIA !!!! (From CHINA!!!)..

Snowden is threating to release documents intended to damage, for his own gains, if his demands are not met.

So you can expect extortion and blackmail charges to be laid at some time.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Ok Manning

‘So he is getting a trial…’

After how long imprisoned, without trial, while held in solitary and/or under suicide watch?

‘he is facing his accusers…’

But not allowed to fully defend himself from their charges, due to ‘security reasons’, meaning they are being allowed to charge him with crimes they not only can’t prove have caused harm, but ones he’s not allowed to refute or fully challenge. Hardly what I’d call a ‘fair trial’.

‘Snowden is on the run, and residing in RUSSIA !!!! (From CHINA!!!).. ‘

Okay first of all, what’s with the excessive caps and exclamation marks? Yes, they are two countries, and yes, they might not agree with the US all the time, but you’re posting as if they were comic book villains.

Second, fleeing to countries big enough to resist pressures the US may bring to bare, and not likely to just hand Snowden over as soon as the US asks isn’t a sign of nefarious intent, it’s a sign of a working brain.

If the entire goal of leaving the country was to stay out of reach of the USG(which it was), then fleeing to a country that was small enough, or on good enough terms with the US that they’d just hand Snowden over would be a very stupid move.

‘…for his own gains, if his demands are not met.’

For all you keep going on about his ‘demands’ and ‘own gains’, all he’s said is that if the US tries to get rid of him, the documents will be released, that’s it, so I fail to see what exactly he’s ‘demanding’ that’s so unreasonable, as it’s clearly self-defense on his part to keep the US from ‘disappearing'(hello NDAA) a thorn in their side.

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