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NSA whistleblower likely had easy access to classified data

Jaikumar Vijayan | June 13, 2013
Even low-level systems admins like Snowden often get very high-level privileges for normal IT tasks, security experts say

A defiant Edward Snowden resurfaced in Hong Kong today vowing to fight any U.S. efforts to extradite him on charges that he leaked classified documents describing two secret government data collection programs.

In comments to the South China Morning Post published on Wednesday, Snowden maintained that he did not flee to Hong Kong to avoid facing the consequences for his actions.

Instead, he wants to use Hong Kong as a refuge to expose the "criminality" of U.S. government domestic spying programs, Snowden said.

"I have had many opportunities to flee Hong Kong, but I would rather stay and fight the US government in the courts, because I have faith in HK's rule of law," Snowden told the Hong Kong newspaper.

According to the Post, Snowden leaked documents purporting to show that the NSA has been hacking into computers in Hong Kong and mainland China since at least 2009. He contended that the attacks targeted Chinese officials, businesses and students in in China and Hong Kong, the paper noted.

Snowden's comments came as questions continue to swirl about how he managed to get his hands on top secret National Security Agency documents while employed as a relatively low-level IT contract worker for the spy agency.

Snowden's actions, hailed as heroic by some and traitorous by others, have sparked an intense national debate on privacy and domestic surveillance.

Snowden was employed by government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton until earlier this week when he was fired. During his three months at the company, he worked with a team in Hawaii as a $122,000 a year IT administrator contracted to the NSA.

In that brief time, Snowden says he accessed top-secret NSA documents that he later leaked to reporters in the U.K. and the U.S. While it remains unclear how he accessed the data, several security experts say it's not surprising that he could.

The odds are high that Snowden had access to classified documents as part of his job, said Sid Probstein, chief technology officer at security vendor Attivio. "It may seem shocking that someone with only a few months tenure could gain access to sensitive information, but that is exactly what happens in the enterprise, all the time," Probstein said.

Newly hired system administrators in major corporations often receive passwords and other information that provides access to very sensitive data, such as CEO emails, customer data and merger and acquisition documents.

"In fact, this might happen long before they reach the three month mark. Most admins likely have this information within a few days of starting work," Probstein said.

Network and systems administrators often need access to such data to perform their jobs, said Jody Brazil, president and chief technology office at FireMon, a provider of security management projects.


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