June 15, 2013

What was Snowden thinking?

Everywhere you look for the past couple weeks there is something on the news about Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower.  I figured it was time for us to acknowledge his story.  Long story short, Snowden disclosed to the international media that the NSA has the capability to monitor private phone calls and internet messaging for American citizens and it is currently logging all this data.  For some reason the population of this country is surprised for those of us in the security community, we never had evidence, but we knew it was going on.  There had been whispers of Stellar Wind and other whistleblowers talking about what they had seen.  A few years ago there was even evidence found at an AT&T switching room in San Francisco that had been duplicated and was monitoring all calls into and out of the United States to Asia.  To me this is old news.  The more interesting side of the story is, how is Snowden going to evade capture now that he is on the run.

Unless he is some sort of state sponsored assistance, like China, he is going to have a tough time.  Being a tech guy and not a trained operative is also going to be a strike against him.  He knows he has to stay off the grid, but without credit cards and access to cash how do you stay off the grid?  How much money are you going to need when you are in a foreign country without a passport? How are you going to access that money without leaving a digital trail?

First off, let’s talk about all the things he did wrong.

  1. Disclosed classified information to the media about the U.S. Government
  2. Gave up his anonymity
  3. Decided to hold up in Hong Kong, instead of a European country

Disclosing classified information about any country’s secrets is definitely not going to make you any friends.  Disclosing information about the U.S. Government is definitely the wrong country to make your enemy.  With a military budget that surpasses the next 20 countries in line, the U.S. doesn’t play around.  The intelligence budget for this country can only be estimated because it is classified, but we can safely imagine the it is rather large given our budget for military.  Wherever you decide to hide, you are going to be found.  It may take us a little while, but we will find you. (See Osama Bin Laden) “If this was me, I would just drop off the grid for a while,” says former FBI counter-terrorism special agent Mark Rossini. “Take the battery out of my phone and throw the phone away.  Get as much cash advance on credit cards and stop using them too.  He’s in a bind since he can’t travel anywhere without a passport and going to Hong Kong was not a strategic move if he wanted to be free.”

Anonymity is your greatest ally.  We all know this working in security, I often annoy my family and friends my privacy standards.  I don’t even really like putting my real name on these blog articles.  You can definitely bet that if I was to disclose classified data, which I never would, but if I (hypothetically) did I would never disclose my identity.  You basically have cut your lead time for an escape route.  Your picture is now a target, your dossier provides investigators and trackers an ability to capture you, an d you have lost valuable time that you could have used while they were discovering your true identity to get out of town.

If you are a Caucasian, nerdy, American, why would you choose Hong Kong to hide out in of all the countries in the world.  “…Hong Kong was not a strategic move if he wanted to be free. He would have been better off going to any European country, and then just traveling via public transportation to remote areas and using his cash to stay in hostels/small inns and eat cheaply,” says former FBI counter-terrorism special agent Mark Rossini.  Former CIA operative Charles Faddis  says, “I don’t think this guy has a prayer of handling this on his own  So I suspect he will show up in mainland China soon. Or at least try to get there.” All evidence to the contrary, Snowden has insisted, however, that he has no interest in aiding a hostile power or defecting. If it were me I would have chosen a place that doesn’t extradite and where I speak the local language, but not Snowden he had this all planned out, clearly.