By Aqsa Hussain..

We have all heard about the whistleblowing scandal of 2013 which erupted in the USA resulting in a monumental leak of classified CIA files. Edward Snowden, the former contractor at the NSA and man responsible for this scandal soon after became the ‘coverboy for unpatriotism’ for some and heroism for others. Amongst many revelations, Snowden’s leaks disclosed mass surveillance programmes run by the USA; both nationally and abroad.

The leaks resulted in huge debates between governments, intelligence agencies, various industries and the public over the morality and responsibility behind the right to information and privacy. Opinions were torn. Without condemning, condoning or celebrating Snowden’s actions, it is important to note that he was not the first to leak information like this (perhaps the first to do so at this scale) and he will most probably not be the last. Scary thought?

What cases similar to Edward Snowden’s illustrate is that it is very difficult to predict who will be responsible for such leaks. Snowden was contracted into a position which with his expertise granted him almost unlimited access to the network. The truthful quote ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ was turned on its head when Snowden proved that ‘with great responsibility comes great power’. Using his advantaged position, he was able to secretly acquire a copy of 1.7 million classified documents (according to the DoD) without raising any red flags… until he escaped to the other side of the world and leaked.

How did he manage to do this?

Snowden did not need to bypass any firewalls since he had high-level access as a contractor. He could even use USB sticks to transport files from one computer to another within the office – something which could be explained as an authorised job task if considered suspicious by colleagues. Was there anyone who had the required skill level and would have been able to see his subtle ‘mismoves’?

Thus, raising the question: when there is someone as skilled as Snowden, who can be assigned to monitor their activity?

How can intelligence agencies learn to spy on themselves?

Before Snowden, there was Executive Order 13587 (2011) which required intelligence agencies to continuously evaluate anyone with the ‘top secret’ clearance level. Since Snowden, civilian contractors have been limited to what they are able to access. Executive Order 13587 is being more forcefully implemented and apart from that there seems to be little else that can be done, legally.

Still, this doesn’t answer the question ‘who watches the watcher?’… The truth may be that it is simply not possible to monitor every action of every single individual at all times. Almost every government, intelligence agency and large company has been – or will be – victim to leakages, whistleblowing and the like.

The Panama Papers, leaked Brexit negotiations in, leaked phone call transcripts of Donald Trump… these all happened within the last year. Data and information leakage is inevitable. Perhaps the bigger question is how to limit the impact by building resilience to manage the aftermath.

Today, Snowden sits in Russia unable to re-enter the USA with the guarantee of his safety.