It’s not secret if it’s been in the papers

Everything (except for a few small factoids) that Snowden has revealed publicly so far also appeared in the May 10th 2006 USA Today front-page article, so much of the breast-beating of the past two weeks has had elements of farce associated with it.

And based on what’s come out so far, the US would have some trouble convicting Snowden of more than some low-level improper handling of data charges — someone with a security clearance is not prevented from saying things that are in the public domain. Obviously a trial would also be something of an embarrassment as well. Perhaps that’s why the US pursuit of Snowden has been somewhat laconic.

He may, of course, have taken other material which is more damaging. Even here, though, it’s hard to see what this could be. The media has been full of “Now our enemies (Russians, Chinese, al Qaeda) know that we intercept their signals”. But, of course, they already knew, not least because of the USA Today article. Reuters put out an article explaining how jihadists were adapting their technology now that they know about this US capability. Absolute rubbish! The only people who might not have known were low-level amateurs, and even then they’d have to be not very bright or rather disconnected from the internet. So knowledge of the existence of these programs does not aid the enemy.

What about targeting details? The US military testified before Congress last year that they worked on the assumption that their military networks (air gapped from the internet) were compromised; and the subtext wasn’t that they wished they had the skills to do the same to the military networks of other countries. Lists of compromised IP addresses are not especially valuable since enemies assume that all IP addresses might have been. In other words, the enemy are not going to look at this kind of data and say “Shoot, they got into that system” because they will already have assumed that they had. (Of course, despite efforts to be professional, there’s always a difference between “We assume this system has been compromised” and “We know this system has been compromised”.)

Details of technologies used might be of some interest. Other countries will certainly already have this information (that’s what their intelligence services are for) but terrorist groups might not. On the other hand, the technical possibilities are fairly obvious — for example, there was a recent paper showing that content in encrypted Skype traffic could be detected in some detail.

What might be more interesting to enemies is details of timelines and policies, for example how quickly is something interesting likely to be noticed and how quickly would it flow up the chain of command for action to be taken. This kind of information is hard to infer from the technical layout of the system — but, for that reason, it’s probably something Snowden didn’t know much about.

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