Vulnerabilities / Threats
6/11/2013
10:03 AM
50%
50%

NSA Prism Relies Heavily On IT Contractors

NSA whistleblower Snowden likely enjoyed access to Prism program details as a contracted NSA IT administrator. Systems administrators remain an important link in your security chain.

How did a Booz Allen contractor get his hands on top secret details about National Security Agency (NSA) intelligence operations?

Edward J. Snowden, 29, leaked confidential information to Britain's Guardian about the so-called NSA Prism program that conducts surveillance of online communications to and from foreigners, and leaked data to The Washington Post about the NSA's access to U.S. phone call metadata. According to Glenn Greenwald, a Brazil-based American who reports on civil liberties issues for the Guardian, Snowden has provided him with "thousands" of documents, of which "dozens" are newsworthy.

The leaks have highlighted how the NSA relies on an army on consultants to help it sift through the massive quantities of data it collects. According to information released this year by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 1.2 million Americans hold top-secret clearances, and 38% of those clearances are held by private contractors.

As that suggests, a substantial amount of U.S. intelligence work is now handled by private contractors. Naval War College professor John Schindler, a former NSA counterintelligence officer, said that the-post Sept. 11 launch of massive data-gathering operations -- for counterterrorism purposes -- required a commensurate increase in the number of people tasked with keeping those classified-data systems running.

[ Learn what Prism shows about cloud security. Read NSA Dragnet Debacle: What It Means To IT. ]

"It's hard to think of a single thing the intelligence community can do on its own anymore without a contractor being involved in some way, from the most mundane of data crunching to the pointy end of the black ops side," Peter Singer, director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Brookings Institution, told The Wall Street Journal.

But how did Snowden access the confidential information in the first place, which includes a top secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order? A former senior NSA official told the Post that only 30 or 40 people in the world would have had access to that data.

Government investigators are "working with the NSA and others around the intelligence community to understand exactly what information this individual had access to, and how that individual was able to take that information outside the community," a senior U.S. intelligence official told the Post.

The NSA would have determined which specific systems Snowden would have been able to access, according to contractors interviewed by the Journal.

Given Snowden's biography and job description -- serving as an "infrastructure analyst" employed by Booz Allen, but working at an NSA satellite office in Hawaii -- many security experts believe that he didn't just have top secret clearance, but served as an information security or IT administrator tasked with keeping confidential systems running.

That might explain Snowden's remarks to the Guardian that he had "full access to the rosters of everyone working at the NSA, the entire intelligence community and undercover assets all around the world, the locations of every station we have, what their missions are and so forth."

A former senior official at the NSA told the Post, however, that Snowden's access claims are overblown. "When he said he had access to every CIA station around the world, he's lying," he said.

Then again, someone had to be maintaining the computer networks and related systems for those stations; what if it was Snowden?

The data leak situation further suggests that NSA officials might not have known the extent to which either private contractors or IT administrators were privy to highly confidential information.

Of course, no system is 100% secure, because a rogue or malicious insider can always decide to leak stored data. To put that another way, the security of any IT system -- no matter how clandestine -- hinges on trusting one's system administrator.

"They can be a critical security gap because they see everything," Naval War College professor Schindler told the Times. "They're like code clerks were in the 20th century. If a smart systems administrator went rogue, you'd be in trouble."

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
builder7
50%
50%
builder7,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/24/2013 | 3:11:09 AM
re: NSA Prism Relies Heavily On IT Contractors
So, if this is true that there are 1.1 million contractors then that means that this privatization initiative started in the 1980's 'to save money and make the government smaller' actually increased the governments size by 1.1 million, high-paid private contractors and the companies that rake in the profit. No wonder our government is going broke!
KawiMan
50%
50%
KawiMan,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/12/2013 | 5:59:50 PM
re: NSA Prism Relies Heavily On IT Contractors
Amen! As an IT professional for 30 years, I have no pity for employers that cut staff and outsource. Loyalty is a word of the past. Employers don't give it to their staff, so why should employers expect it from their staff? They won't get it because they don't give it.
majenkins
50%
50%
majenkins,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/11/2013 | 7:39:38 PM
re: NSA Prism Relies Heavily On IT Contractors
"It's hard to think of a single thing the intelligence community can do on its own anymore without a contractor being involved in some way, . . .

So what you are saying is that long before Jason Bourne jumped off of that yacht some contractor would have blown the whistle on the whole shebang.
2sense
50%
50%
2sense,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/11/2013 | 7:32:44 PM
re: NSA Prism Relies Heavily On IT Contractors
If you want loyalty, buy a dog.
proberts551
50%
50%
proberts551,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/11/2013 | 5:27:45 PM
re: NSA Prism Relies Heavily On IT Contractors
"1.2 million Americans holdtop-secret clearances, and 38% of those clearances are held by privatecontractors." Why should the Government not be the same as Corporate America?
I would like to see the percentage for contactors vs employed direct for I.T. people in Corporate America. I work as a contractor for a fortune 500 company, employed, love my job...but, . 90% are contractors because they got rid of the full time employees, and cut staff to the bone. I have heard from friends in the industry, that their fortune 500 companies did the same thing.
The jobs that seem to stay, are management positions, who are deciding what
"workers" get the axe. All are trying to save their own skin. I.T. struggles to function because of that very situation. Thus, my job was created and I work for the department to keep up production because I.T. cannot handle it. Even employees that have been employed for 20+ years are not safe....if they are workers. I know of data centers that closed, moved to India for warehousing and IT server services. It is all about Money folks, and human resources is just that. Not personnel. No longer are you safe doing a great job for an employer. There is no loyalty anywhere unless you know someone high up that can save you.
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Video
Cartoon Contest
Write a Caption, Win a Starbucks Card! Click Here
Latest Comment: This is a secure windows pc.
Current Issue
Security Operations and IT Operations: Finding the Path to Collaboration
A wide gulf has emerged between SOC and NOC teams that's keeping both of them from assuring the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of IT systems. Here's how experts think it should be bridged.
Flash Poll
New Best Practices for Secure App Development
New Best Practices for Secure App Development
The transition from DevOps to SecDevOps is combining with the move toward cloud computing to create new challenges - and new opportunities - for the information security team. Download this report, to learn about the new best practices for secure application development.
Slideshows
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2017-0290
Published: 2017-05-09
NScript in mpengine in Microsoft Malware Protection Engine with Engine Version before 1.1.13704.0, as used in Windows Defender and other products, allows remote attackers to execute arbitrary code or cause a denial of service (type confusion and application crash) via crafted JavaScript code within ...

CVE-2016-10369
Published: 2017-05-08
unixsocket.c in lxterminal through 0.3.0 insecurely uses /tmp for a socket file, allowing a local user to cause a denial of service (preventing terminal launch), or possibly have other impact (bypassing terminal access control).

CVE-2016-8202
Published: 2017-05-08
A privilege escalation vulnerability in Brocade Fibre Channel SAN products running Brocade Fabric OS (FOS) releases earlier than v7.4.1d and v8.0.1b could allow an authenticated attacker to elevate the privileges of user accounts accessing the system via command line interface. With affected version...

CVE-2016-8209
Published: 2017-05-08
Improper checks for unusual or exceptional conditions in Brocade NetIron 05.8.00 and later releases up to and including 06.1.00, when the Management Module is continuously scanned on port 22, may allow attackers to cause a denial of service (crash and reload) of the management module.

CVE-2017-0890
Published: 2017-05-08
Nextcloud Server before 11.0.3 is vulnerable to an inadequate escaping leading to a XSS vulnerability in the search module. To be exploitable a user has to write or paste malicious content into the search dialogue.

Dark Reading Radio
Archived Dark Reading Radio
In past years, security researchers have discovered ways to hack cars, medical devices, automated teller machines, and many other targets. Dark Reading Executive Editor Kelly Jackson Higgins hosts researcher Samy Kamkar and Levi Gundert, vice president of threat intelligence at Recorded Future, to discuss some of 2016's most unusual and creative hacks by white hats, and what these new vulnerabilities might mean for the coming year.