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NSA tried for auto, non-human cyber retaliation setup, Snowden says

| Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014, 7:51 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The National Security Agency secretly planned a cyberwarfare program that could automatically fire back at cyberattacks from foreign countries without any human involvement, risking an accidental war, according to a report based on interviews with onetime NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The program, codenamed MonsterMind, would have let the military agency automate the process of “hunting for the beginnings” of a foreign cyberattack, the report said. The software would be constantly on the lookout for digital “traffic patterns” that indicated known or suspected attacks, the report published this week by Wired magazine said.

The report, part of a wide-ranging interview with Snowden in Moscow, described the MonsterMind program as “in the works” and went further than other programs that existed for decades. Without any human involvement, Snowden told the magazine, a counter-attack could be leveled at an innocent party — largely because initial attacks are often routed or diverted through other countries.

“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,” Snowden said. “What happens next?”

The problem of attribution after a cyberattack has long unsettled computer security experts. A House technology subcommittee in 2010 concluded that, “proactively tracing interactions within a system may help determine where an attack originated after one occurs, but tracing every interaction is impractical and quite likely unconstitutional.”

Snowden called the program a major threat to privacy because NSA would first “have to secretly get access to virtually all private communications coming in from overseas to people in the U.S.,” said the new report, by NSA expert and author James Bamford.

Snowden remains exiled in Russia since leaking top secret documents to journalists last year. They revealed the NSA was collecting the phone records and digital communications of millions of citizens not suspected of a crime.

Snowden, who has been charged under the Espionage Act, was photographed for Wired clutching an American flag. He said he hopes to return home some day.

“I told the government I'd volunteer for prison, as long as it served the right purpose,” he said. “I care more about the country than what happens to me.”

The NSA declined to comment on specifics of the Wired report. A spokeswoman, Vanee Vines, instead said: “If Mr. Snowden wants to discuss his activities, that conversation should be held with the U.S. Department of Justice. He needs to return to the United States to face the charges against him.”

Snowden claims that in 2012 the NSA tried to hack into a major Syrian Internet router. But he said the NSA mistakenly “bricked” the router — computer-speak for rendering it useless — temporarily crippling Internet access there.

At the time, the outage was seen as an effort from Syrian President Bashar Assad to disrupt rebel communications. Snowden claims the office joke was, “If we get caught, we can always point the finger at Israel.”

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