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The Staggering Power of NSA Systems Administrators

Kin Cheung/AP

In Catch-22, there is a character whose constant desire to go AWOL results in a series of demotions. The reader is introduced to him as Ex-PFC Wintergreen, a lowly mail clerk. But it turns out that his job affords him extraordinary access to information. By manipulating its flow, he quietly becomes one of the most influential men in the military, wielding more power than generals. I thought of Ex-PFC Wintergreen almost immediately after the Edward Snowden leaks made headlines, and again when General Keith Alexander, the director of the NSA, revealed one of the ways his agency was responding to them: using automation to cut the number of systems administrators by 90 percent, a reduction so extreme that it's an implicit admission of a serious flaw in current arrangements.

NBC's latest reporting on system administrators makes me think I haven't emphasized their power, or its implications for the NSA debate, nearly enough. Put simply, if NBC's reporting is right, then a number of prominent defenses of NSA surveillance and oversight are obviously wrong. Consider these findings:

  • "The NSA, which has as many as 40,000 employees, has 1,000 system administrators, most of them contractors."
  • "As a system administrator, Snowden was allowed to look at any file he wanted, and his actions were largely unaudited."
  • "He was also able to access NSAnet, the agency's intranet, without leaving any signature, said a person briefed on the postmortem of Snowden's theft. He was essentially a 'ghost user,' said the source, making it difficult to trace when he signed on or what files he accessed."
  • "If he wanted, he would even have been able to pose as any other user with access to NSAnet, said the source."
  • "A system administrator has the right to copy, to take information from one computer and move it to another."

Now think about what that means.

If NBC's reporting is accurate, Alexander's assurance that "we can audit the actions of our people 100 percent, and we do that," is a lie. To be more precise: We've long known that the NSA doesn't audit all its employees 100 percent, since what Edward Snowden took is still unknown. NBC suggests that the NSA isn't even capable of fully auditing systems administrators. 

Read more at The Atlantic

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