The intelligence disaster wrought by fomer National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden carries important lessons about the character of the digital world we now inhabit. Intelligence agencies, and indeed anyone who relies on information security, are far more vulnerable than in the past. At one time a spy was lucky to bring home a film cartridge from a Minox camera with copies (which might not be terribly good) of a few pages of some secret document. Obtaining those copies might take as much as 15 or 20 minutes, during which he was vulnerable to detection. A spy with legitimate access to a classified library might manage to obtain information from 10 to 20 documents in a day, assuming he knew what he wanted. Former civilian analyst Jonathan Pollard apparently obtained a few hundred sensitive documents, which he passed to his masters to be copied. He was limited to what he could carry in a briefcase. In each instance, the damage was significant, because even one sensitive document might well contain crucial information.
Snowden’s theft was on an altogether greater scale. Because he was a system administrator, he could override the settings on computers that prevented them from dumping data into thumb drives. He was acquiring data at the rate of millions of bytes per second. That might be thousands of pages per second, depending on how documents were stored. Current thumb drives are rated in the tens of gigabytes of data. A gigabyte is roughly a thousand million bytes, which is on the order of half a million pages. Snowden’s system administrator status almost certainly made it possible for him to override any firewalls. The only real limit on Snowden might have been ignorance of the relative value of the documents he was stealing.