Today Wired published an extensive profile of Edward Snowden, the former U.S. intelligence worker who leaked a trove of National Security Agency documents that exposed the agency’s online surveillance program. In the course of explaining Snowden’s reasoning for turning over top secret files, the article disclosed the existence of a cyberwarfare program that, it claims, is capable of “accidentally starting a war.”
According to the article’s author, longtime intelligence journalist James Bamford, the NSA deploys a cyberwarfare program, known as MonsterMind, that is designed to “constantly be on the lookout for traffic patterns indicating known or suspected [cyber] attacks.” When an attack is detected, the program blocks it from entering the U.S.
Bamford, who has seen the files taken by Snowden, notes that programs designed to block cyber attacks are not new. However, one additional feature of MonsterMind disturbed Snowden. Apparently, the program is capable of “firing back” against a cyber attack “with no human involvement,” Bamford writes. Snowden explains the significance of this feature: “These attacks can be spoofed. You could have someone sitting in China, for example, making it appear that one of these attacks is originating in Russia. And then we end up shooting back at a Russian hospital. What happens next?” Snowden makes the leap, without further explanation in the article, that such a misstep could result in an accidental war.
For the profile, Bamford spent three days with Snowden in Russia, where he has been living under temporary asylum for the past year. Over the course of their conversations, Snowden indicated that it was MonsterMind, along with the NSA’s massive new data center in Utah, that made him finally decide to take a trove of secret surveillance files from the NSA. “It's really hard to take that step,” he told Bamford, “not only do I believe in something, I believe in it enough that I'm willing to set my own life on fire and burn it to the ground.”