Technology

Snowden: Overreliance on Mass Surveillance Abetted Boston Marathon Bombing

Oct. 20, 2014, 9:50 a.m.

Ed­ward Snowden on Monday sug­ges­ted that if the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency fo­cused more on tra­di­tion­al in­tel­li­gence gath­er­ing—and less on its mass-sur­veil­lance pro­grams—it could have thwarted the 2013 Bo­ston Mara­thon bomb­ings.

The fu­git­ive leak­er, speak­ing via video to a Har­vard class, said that a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with col­lect­ing bulk com­mu­nic­a­tions data has led to re­source con­straints at U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies, of­ten leav­ing more tra­di­tion­al, tar­geted meth­ods of spy­ing on the back burn­er.

“We miss at­tacks, we miss leads, and in­vest­ig­a­tions fail be­cause when the gov­ern­ment is do­ing its ‘col­lect it all,’ where we’re watch­ing every­body, we’re not see­ing any­thing with spe­cificity be­cause it is im­possible to keep an eye on all of your tar­gets,” Snowden told Har­vard pro­fess­or and In­ter­net free­dom act­iv­ist Lawrence Lessig. “A good ex­ample of this is, ac­tu­ally, the Bo­ston Mara­thon bomb­ings.”

Snowden said that Dzhokhar and Tam­er­lan Tsarnaev were poin­ted out by Rus­si­an in­tel­li­gence to U.S. of­fi­cials pri­or to the bomb­ings last year that killed three and left hun­dreds wounded, but that such ac­tion­able in­tel­li­gence was largely ig­nored. He ar­gued that tar­geted sur­veil­lance on known ex­trem­ists and di­li­gent pur­suit of in­tel­li­gence leads provides for bet­ter coun­terter­ror­ism ef­forts than mass spy­ing.

“We didn’t really watch these guys and the ques­tion is, why?” Snowden asked. “The real­ity of that is be­cause we do have fi­nite re­sources and the ques­tion is, should we be spend­ing 10 bil­lion dol­lars a year on mass-sur­veil­lance pro­grams of the NSA to the ex­tent that we no longer have ef­fect­ive means of tra­di­tion­al [tar­get­ing]?”

Anti-spy­ing act­iv­ists have fre­quently ar­gued that bulk data col­lec­tion has no re­cord of suc­cess­fully thwart­ing a ter­ror­ist at­tack, a line of ar­gu­ment some fed­er­al judges re­view­ing the NSA’s pro­grams have also used in their leg­al re­views of the activ­it­ies.

Snowden’s sug­ges­tion—that such mass sur­veil­lance has not only failed to dir­ectly stop a threat, but ac­tu­ally makes the U.S. less safe by dis­tract­ing re­source-strapped in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials from per­form­ing their jobs—takes his cri­ti­cism of spy pro­grams to a new level.

“We’re watch­ing every­body that we have no reas­on to be watch­ing simply be­cause it may have value, at the ex­pense of be­ing able to watch spe­cif­ic people for which we have a spe­cif­ic cause for in­vest­ig­at­ing, and that’s something that we need to look care­fully at how to bal­ance,” Snowden said.

Snowden’s ap­pear­ance is his second in as many weeks. He spoke with journ­al­ist Jane May­er earli­er via video at the New York­er fest­iv­al earli­er this month, where he cau­tioned that Apple and Google’s new en­cryp­tion pro­tec­tions are not im­pen­et­rable from spies and law-en­force­ment of­fi­cials—a warn­ing he echoed on Monday.

“Sys­tems are fun­da­ment­ally in­sec­ure,” Snowden said. “Even heav­ily pro­tec­ted, heav­ily en­cryp­ted mes­sages are vul­ner­able.”

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