What could have stopped Snowden

[ by Charles Cameron — mini-rant on importance of humans, human errors, and insight ]


OK, I watch TV & this screencap is from *Lie to Me* - this is about more than that


One proficient judge of human character with a good combo of micro-observation skills and / or gut instinct present at a Booz Allen job interview might very well have made a substantial difference, no?


I see this as a case to consider in terms of the human intelligence : number crunching ratio, or HUMINT : SIGINT balance.

Or rich data : Big Data or mind : machine question.

Or am I missing something?


Just one piece of the puzzle:

Microexpressions, from Wikipedia:

A microexpression is a brief, involuntary facial expression shown on the face of humans according to emotions experienced. They usually occur in high-stakes situations, where people have something to lose or gain. Microexpressions occur when a person is consciously trying to conceal all signs of how he or she is feeling, or when a person does not consciously know how he or she is feeling. Unlike regular facial expressions, it is difficult to hide microexpression reactions. Microexpressions express the seven universal emotions: disgust, anger, fear, sadness, happiness, surprise, and contempt. Nevertheless, in the 1990s, Paul Ekman expanded his list of basic emotions, including a range of positive and negative emotions not all of which are encoded in facial muscles. These emotions are amusement, contempt, embarrassment, excitement, guilt, pride, relief, satisfaction, pleasure, and shame. They are very brief in duration, lasting only 1/25 to 1/15 of a second.

Microwizards, from Wikipedia — which may not be quite the same as the ability to detect microexpressions:

O’Sullivan and Ekman identified only 50 people as Truth Wizards after testing 20,000 (~0.25%) from all walks of life, including the Secret Service, FBI, sheriffs, police, attorneys, arbitrators, psychologists, students, and many others. Surprisingly, while psychiatrists and law enforcement personnel showed no more aptitude than college freshmen, Secret Service agents were the most skilled.


That’s all, folks. It’s a beginning — what say you all?

19 comments on this post.
  1. Curtis Gale Weeks:

    I don’t know all the details of Snowden’s career.  I do wonder however if future activities can always be predicted years beforehand (via microexpressions or otherwise.)  For example, the future whistleblower/spy who starts out gung-ho but, five years later, comes across some information that upsets his notion of his employer and his own role.  (Or personal/financial problems, in the case of a spy and $$$.)


    You would think however that one of the questions in the interview would be something like, “Can you see yourself, under any circumstances, revealing or leaking sensitive information to the American public or a foreign government without authorization?” —it’s that under any circumstances bit that would probably trigger a microexpression.   Plus, a general personality trait of being anti-authoritarian or libertarian might show as a tell.  OTOH, there might be cases where someone could pass the test then, years later, have a change of heart.

  2. Charles Cameron:

    Hi Curtis:
    Cheryl Rofer’s Edward Snowden Timeline for Nuclear Café reports that Snowden was “experiencing a crisis of conscience of sorts” between 2006 and 2005, quoting “a personal friend of Edward Snowden” in Who is Ed Snowden? Friend shares memories, offers support for NSA leaker:

    He is introspective and, perhaps, a bit prone to brood: the type of person who thinks long and hard before coming to a decision. At the time when we were in close contact — from the summer of 2007 through the first part of 2009 — he was already experiencing a crisis of conscience of sorts. I think anyone smart enough to be involved in the type of work he does, who is privy to the type of information to which he was privy, will have at least moments like these. And at some point during that time he left the CIA.

    That’s all stuff I can relate to, but it’s also stuff that might raise an eyebrow if I were interviewing for a job with NSA that gave access to classified data…
    Following the timeline, he apparently contacted Laura Poitras in January 2013. So by then, he he was certainly thinking about some form of press-relations.
    He was then hired by Booz Allen — in March or April.

  3. Cheryl Rofer:

    Curtis makes an excellent point: people change.
    There is a sort of institutionalized paranoia to selecting people for jobs where they’ll need security clearances. It’s exacerbated by the extreme error-aversion in government agencies. Nobody must make a mistake, ever. So you don’t want someone who will turn into an Edward Snowden or Bradley Manning. But how can you know?
    I suspect that Snowden didn’t mention his crisis of conscience at work. And apparently he worked for Booz Allen at some time earlier, although I haven’t found dates for that yet. That could account for how quickly he managed to get rehired this year, after he started talking to reporters.
    I really distrust the idea of trying to train people to read others’ expressions. Wouldn’t that be affected by male/female, ethnicity, and other things? Supposedly the TSA has had some behavioral training going. I hope it’s on very obvious things, like trying to light a match to your shoe. 

  4. larrydunbar:

    “One proficient judge of human character with a good combo of micro-observation skills and / or gut instinctpresent at a Booz Allen job interview might very well have made a substantial difference, no?”

    Or if Booz Allen would have had Snowden’s Big Data. Of course as a private corporation Booz Allen could have had all that data, but would have had to buy it. This is apparently something no one wants to do. Look at Facebook, it would have all been there, if only someone had wanted to buy it. 

    Or is “sell” the key word? 

  5. Charles Cameron:


    I really distrust the idea of trying to train people to read others’ expressions. Wouldn’t that be affected by male/female, ethnicity, and other things?

    Oh, yes.  I’m certainly not suggesting training of that sort as a desideratum — far too many opportunity for people to project their biases — my point is really that one human being may be more significant than a vast array of computers and databases.  I wish we’d focus more on human intelligence and qualitative understanding.
    A little clarity and “epistemic humility” along the way would be nice, too.

  6. Duncan Kinder:

    A far better discussion would focus on NSA officials who perjure themselves before congress as well as on corrupt and posturing politicians.

    Booze Allen is a questionable organization, as is obviously the NSA.  The pertinent issue with respect to job interviews would be to empower individuals, such as Snowden, from becoming enmeshed in spooky outfits.  Is there something creepy weird about this organization.


  7. Chris:

    A slightly hyperbolic but still relevant open letter appeared recently in Ars Technica.

    There are new kids in town, though—kids who grew up on data. They were raised to dish out and take in as much data as possible, and they do it for fun. To you, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and all the rest of it are the latest places from which to siphon information. To these new kids, it’s home. It’s where they grew up, which is why they’re much better at it, and why you hire so many of them.
    Now, what happens when you raise a generation on a steady diet of data, and then try to keep naughty secrets? They’re going to ask questions. They grew up in a world where information was free, and they took advantage of that fact. They learned more about the world around them than could ever be learned in school, and they went online for the answers to the questions their parents and teachers wouldn’t answer. They grew up not just appreciating that information was free, but expecting information to be free.

    If we follow the logic of the piece, and I do believe it to be right in substance, the issue for Booz Allen is that the vast majority of their hacker new hires will fail the sort of “loyalty” tests you’d ideally want them to pass. But you need their skills, so what can you (as Booz Allen) do? At best it seems to me you aim to hire the least likely to leak, and offer them so much money that they’re even less likely to do it, and then you just hope for the best. Which is effectively what they did with Snowden.

    As Duncan points out, it would be far better to focus on the moral collapse that enables the NSA to lie about these programs, and the system by which you can justify more or less anything using “national security” as your rallying cry, than focussing on stopping leaks. A large part of the reason for these leaks is the fact that they run so counter to the moral position of the individuals asked to implement/maintain them, that those individuals will do anything to bring them down.

    We have to consider the fact that Snowden saw what happened to Bradley Manning (and others) and still thought it was worth ruining the rest of his life to bring these systems to light. 

  8. Mr. X:

    The real problem the NSA’s die hard spinners (which excludes all present company) have is that they cannot destroy Snowden’s reputation and probity as a human being without reflecting poorly on themselves. And if he really did simply walk out of NSA with a thumb drive 10 others could’ve walked out, handed off or dead dropped the stick for their Russian and Chinese handlers and NSA wouldn’t know – or worse would have its keys compromised or the back doors Senators like Feinstein think are so profitable for her husband’s insider trading instead are used to blackmail the US political class.

    Syria versus Benghazi to name one example, is a looming collision between the Saudi/Qatari penetration of Washington and how much kompromat the Russians have on Obama regarding the events of 9/12/2012. The problem is that the super hawks and Establishment parrots haven’t figured out is that just because you can spin away accountability to the American people for things like running MANPADs from Libya to Syria doesn’t mean Russia and Iran won’t use this juicy kompromat to their advantage.

    So, if I were Sergey Lavrov and I wanted to issue one last warning against Washington directly intervening to support it’s failing Free Syrian Army proxies, I would probably ‘leak’ footage of the Libyan arms being unloaded in Turkey paired with the loading in Libya. And dress up the leak as being from anti-Erdogan elements within the Turkish bureaucracy (say the kind with biznismen friends who own vegetable farms that ship to Perekrostik or have hotels in Antalya) trying to further embarrass a beleaguered Ankara government. But the real target would be the Obama Administration, assuming Obama has any ability left to say no to the very shadow state that put him in power and their drive for a war that clearly the next man up in Biden has cheetleaded for.

  9. Cheryl Rofer:

    Hi Charles –
    I totally agree that more human thinking in these sorts of situations would be a good idea. But every incident like this pushes those fearful of making a mistake further away from human thinking. I could write a long rant about that, might write parts of it in another post on this incident. Epistemic humility – ha! as far as these organizations are concerned.
    Chris – I agree that there is a generational difference in how information is regarded. But it’s no secret what the NSA does and, more or less, how it does it. So if Snowden had serious objections to that sort of thing, why did he join up? There are plenty of other well-paying jobs for smart young programmers. Some of his earlier writings suggest that he really liked the intrigue. Perhaps, as young people sometimes do, he was attracted to what he considered the good parts of the NSA to a point where he ignored how much of it would repulse him.

  10. Chris:

    I’m sympathetic to that point Cheryl, however, does it matter the rationale as to why he joined? Even if he chose to join for the “cool” factor, or even for the money that doesn’t negate his right to expose a deeply morally dubious program. There may also be a disconnect here on the basis of perspective, to which I highly recommend you read the piece at Ars Technica.

    If any Govt agency is doing something so deeply morally dubious in “service to the people” that those people wouldn’t want it to occur, there needs to be a serious discussion about whether that agency has a right to do it.

    We cannot have 100% security, even with 0% liberty. My final thought is this rather sagely written quote – We are all criminals if you look hard enough:

    “If the federal government had access to every email you’ve ever written and every phone call you’ve ever made, it’s almost certain that they could find something you’ve done which violates a provision in the 27,000 pages of federal statues or 10,000 administrative regulations. You probably do have something to hide, you just don’t know it yet.” 

  11. MM:

    Microexpressions are a contextual process. Expressions of fleeting emotions or body language can give an indication of intentions in the moment in a specific situation. Very useful in immediate situations or in conjunction with longer planned interviews. Just one tool.

    Did Snowden disclose secrets or did he disclose awareness to an oblivious population? The same population who don’t want to know who’s sons or daughters are sent to another war for them, or accept intrusive body searches by TSA on a business trip to go along with their lives. With all their access to information and news are they just “good Germans” who appear nervous when asked what they know about what is happening? Maybe their microexpressions say something after all. 

  12. Grurray:

    “There are new kids in town, though—kids who grew up on data.”
    They also grew up with 9-11 and fought and died on the front lines of two wars, so some of them for sure had a lot of business in militarized institutions.
    “They grew up not just appreciating that information was free, but expecting information to be free”
    “To be a hacker is to be cynical about whatever “solid” information or limits you’re faced with,”
    I think this is a mischaracterization.  I don’t see it as destroying constraints but searching for them. Exploration for the limits is done because they want to find them, and, more importantly, they need them. Free instantaneous information brings free instantaneous feedback. Team work and collaboration facilitate the feedback loop and strengthen it. Once the loop is going they will follow the rules to sustain it, and they will bond together to defend it. 
    The coming of age of this generation and the emergence of big data solutions are conjoined phenomena. Where I think both get in trouble is when the loop doesn’t conform to their preconceived notions or preset standards. There’s a propensity for continuity and definitude over creativity. 
    I’m sure a lot of people here know more about Boyd’s OODA loop then me, but I understand that orientation is the most important phase. I don’t see a lot of emphasis there in the systems or people we’re talking about.


  13. Michael Robinson:

    I am curious about how ‘they’ are going to tap dance round these postings by Snowden over years on ArsTechnica. If ‘they’ knew of these posts why did he gain / retain clearances; if ‘they’ did not know, how much use are ‘they’ at protecting themselves and therefore the US and its interests?
    The disclosure that Snowden was able to connect and then walk out with a simple thumb drive leaves me speechless.  No automatic background auditing at the ‘root’ level on all machines?

  14. Cheryl Rofer:

    Hi Chris –
    What I said was So if Snowden had serious objections to that sort of thing, why did he join up? Why does someone join an organization if his values are in conflict with the actions of that organization? It would seem peculiar to me if a devout Buddhist who took precautions not to step on ants because of his reverence for life decided to join the army.
    Provenance is always a consideration in intelligence. Does Snowden have motivation to fake the documents? We have only his word that they are genuine; the reporters could be snookered by fakes. Or might he have been recruited by the Chinese at some time?
    We know very little about Snowden, and less about the programs he has claimed to reveal. I wrote about that a few days before outlets like the New Yorker are now wondering about that. Look, shiny! snookered them for a while. 

  15. Michael Robinson:

    For those who are unfamiliar with what can be learnt from social network analysis alone Kieran Healy has a fun example that demonstrates what could have been learnt in 1775 from only the membership lists of Boston organizations: Using Metadata to Find Paul Revere.  (Revere was one of the ringleaders of the Boston Tea party and, more importantly, the courier for the Boston Committee of Safety in their secret communications with New York and Philadelphia) 

  16. Charles Cameron:

    Thanks, Michael:
    If you aren’t knee deep in this kind of thing already and haven’t seen it, this German Green Party member’s travels as deduced from his phone records make for a fascinating interactive educational toy…

    Green party politician Malte Spitz sued to have German telecoms giant Deutsche Telekom hand over six months of his phone data that he then made available to ZEIT ONLINE. We combined this geolocation data with information relating to his life as a politician, such as Twitter feeds, blog entries and websites, all of which is all freely available on the internet.
    By pushing the play button, you will set off on a trip through Malte Spitz’s life. The speed controller allows you to adjust how fast you travel, the pause button will let you stop at interesting points. In addition, a calendar at the bottom shows when he was in a particular location and can be used to jump to a specific time period. Each column corresponds to one day.


  17. Duncan Kinder:

    You link about finding Paul Revere truly was wonderful.  Congratulations.
    1) Revere did the famous engraving of the Boston Massacre.  The British therefore already knew who he was.
    2) It was not actually Revere who completed his famous ride; rather it was Samuel Prescott.

  18. Charles Cameron:

    Going back to my question as to whether a single alert human mind — or an eavesdropping, dot-connecting big-data NSA — might have sussed Snowden out, here are two people who have been involved in security clearance practices telling us how these things are done, from Time magazine, Potential Blind Spots in Clearance Process that Gave Snowden Top-Secret Access

    And unless the investigation process changed since she stopped taking cases in late March, a candidate’s presence on social media — often a venue for employees to vent angst and political views — isn’t considered. “We didn’t ask about it to the subjects. Didn’t come up in any of the source interviews. And we didn’t do our own individual searches of a person’s social media,”  she says.
    Berry agrees: His clients have increasingly voiced concerns about whether their online identities are being sorted through during clearance investigations, but he suggests there’s too much data — and too many people vying for the coveted access — for that to happen. If that’s the case, it appears that college recruiters look more rigorously at applicants’ online lives than some federal departments. At press time, an OPM representative had not returned a request for comment.

    Too many haystacks?

  19. kingfelix:

    laughable. the unconstitutional and criminal acts that snowden witnessed are the motivation and here you are, analyzing recruitment procedures.