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.

Filed Under: dead man's switch, documents, ed snowden, encryption, leaks, protection


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 Jul 2013 @ 10:34pm

    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.

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