Edward Snowden, the former intelligence worker who disclosed the U.S. government’s massive digital surveillance program, gave a rare video interview to The Guardian last week in which he said that some NSA employees pass around “sexually compromising” images they discover in the course of surveillance activities. “These are seen as sort of the fringe benefits of surveillance positions,” he told the paper.
Snowden’s claim came after the interviewers, Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger and the paper’s intelligence correspondence Ewen MacAskill, asked him if he recalled any specific instances where surveillance activities he witnessed made him feel “uneasy.”
Here was Snowden’s response: “You’ve got young enlisted guys. 18-22 years old. They’ve suddenly been thrust into a position of extraordinary responsibility where they now have access to all of your private records. In the course of their daily work they stumble across something that is completely unrelated to their work in any sort of necessary sense. For example, an intimate nude photo of someone in a sexually compromising situation. But they’re extremely attractive. So what do they do, they turn around in their chair and they show their co worker. And their co-worker says, ‘Oh hey that’s great. Send that to Bill down the way.’ And then Bill sends it to George. George sends it to Tom. And sooner or later, this person’s whole life has been seen by all of these other people.”
When asked how often Snowden witnessed this, he told The Guardian it was “routine enough. Depending on the company you keep it could be more or less frequent.”
The NSA did not immediately respond to Newsweek’s request for comment. Last August, the NSA did admit that on “very rare” occasions, agents do cross personal boundaries while performing surveillance work. That comment was made in reference to revelations that, in the last decade, there have been a series of incidents at the agency where officials have used the NSA’s surveillance tools to spy on their lovers. The practice is known inside the intelligence community as LOVEINT. According to The Wall Street Journal, in each case, the employee was either punished or terminated.
In the case of LOVEINT, intelligence officials said that in most cases, the abuses were “self-reported.” During The Guardian’s interview with Snowden about the circulation of sexually explicit images, he told the paper, “It’s never reported. Nobody ever knows about it because the auditing of these systems is incredibly weak.”
“A 29-year-old walked in and out of the NSA with all of their private records,” he added. “What does that say about their auditing?”
Update: Vanee M. Vines, an NSA spokesperson, responded for a comment after the publication of this article. "NSA is a professional foreign-intelligence organization with a highly trained workforce, including brave and dedicated men and women from our armed forces. As we have said before, the agency has zero tolerance for willful violations of the agency’s authorities or professional standards, and would respond as appropriate to any credible allegations of misconduct."