NEW YORK -- The director of the National Security Agency said Thursday that the agency has found a way to prevent further leaks about American surveillance by replacing nearly all its system administrators with machines.
At a cybersecurity conference, Gen. Keith B. Alexander told the audience that intelligence agencies plan to reduce by 90 percent the number of people in the system administrator position. Edward Snowden worked as a system administrator as an NSA contractor before leaking secrets about the agency’s controversial cyber-spying programs and then gaining refuge in Russia.
The NSA employs or contracts with about 1,000 system administrators, Alexander has previously said.
The general said Thursday that the NSA planned to replace system administrators with new technology that will make computer networks "more defensible and more secure."
“We’ve put people in the loop of transferring data, securing networks and doing things that machines are probably better at doing,” Alexander said during a panel discussion with the heads of the FBI and CIA, which was attended by about 300 people.
Alexander added, “The intent of what we’re now doing is to come up with ways that limit what people can take, what data they have and how we monitor that.”
As another step, Alexander said intelligence agencies are now requiring system administrators to follow the so-called “two-man rule,” or having someone with them when they access sensitive data.
Alexander has previously said that the NSA would restrict the use of thumb drives by systems administrators in response to the Snowden leaks.
Alexander did not mention Snowden by name, but said new technology -- which he called a "thin virtual cloud structure" -- would replace employees, greatly reducing the agency's need to trust them with protecting government secrets.
“We trust people with data,” Alexander said at the conference. “At the end of the day it’s all about trust. And people who have access to data as part of their missions, if they misuse that trust they can cause huge damage.”
Snowden has acknowledged that his former position gave him enormous access to sensitive information. He told the Guardian in June: "When you're in positions of privileged access, like a systems administrator for the sort of intelligence community agencies, you're exposed to a lot more information on a broader scale than the average employee. And because of that you see things that may be disturbing, but over the course of a normal person's career you'd only see one or two of these instances."
The recent leaks by Snowden to the Guardian and Washington Post have renewed the debate within the intelligence community over how much access IT employees should have to government secrets.
Prior to Snowden, perhaps the most famous case of an employee accused of causing trouble on his employer's network is that of Pfc. Bradley Manning, who was charged with providing thousands of government documents to WikiLeaks. The 25-year-old Army private first class was convicted last month on 19 counts for sending a massive trove of documents to the anti-secrecy group and faces up to 90 years in prison.