Why Edward Snowden's Education Matters Very Little

Motives and ethics are more important in the hunt for tech workers, one analyst says.

It's now known that National Security Agency surveillance leaker Edward Snowden made $120,000 annually – a hefty salary for someone who reportedly never graduated from high school. Still, the coveted job and hefty salary start to make sense when you consider one element of Snowden’s resumé: he has tech skills.

So is this an example of just how desperate the government and private industry have become for workers with high-tech expertise?

“I wouldn’t characterize it like that,” said Hord Tipton, executive director of (ISC)2, on Thursday. He says Snowden's education matters very little, and that his motives and ethics matter more.

“The government openly announces that it hires hackers,” Tipton said. “They hire people who are self-professed and skilled at breaking into machines. And I would say that a very low percentage of those people actually have college degrees.”

While many of Snowden’s claims still have yet to be validated, Tipton said the story underscores what many security organizations have been saying for years - that the human element is the weakest link in any system, no matter how good the technology.

“I think we will be disappointed and surprised to learn that when you give any individual that much authority, particularly when they’re especially bright, that they can indeed cause a lot of damage,” Tipton said. “These are very sensitive positions.”

And even if the government were to set the highest standards for education, background and security clearances, there’s always the possibility for renegades in these types of positions, Tipton said.

“One of the questions we have to ask is, what is our tolerance for error?” he said. “I don’t know how you can guarantee that this won’t continue to happen. It’s like trying to stop crime. You always have to do your best to minimize it and lower your risk as much as possible, but this is something we have to learn to live with.”