Edward Snowden: Hacking Beginnings & Teen Rebellion

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How did Edward Snowden start hacking? What skills did the hacker Snowden develop? What is hacker culture like?

For Edward Snowden, hacking was a way to assert his independence. As a hacker, Snowden was very skilled. Learn more about Edward Snowden, hacking, and hacker culture.

Hacker Culture

Hacking doesn’t only happen in the tech world. Hacking is simply finding a way to exploit the weakness of a system. As a hacker, Snowden looked for these opportunities as well. When people build systems, they rely on assumptions they haven’t necessarily thought through and sometimes don’t even test their systems. They only consider how their system is supposed to work. A hacker discovers how it actually works, or how they could make it work differently. 

Hacker culture is based in playfulness and cleverness, and it generally comes with antiauthoritarian politics. Many hackers believe more things should be free and publicly accessible.

Edward Snowden: Hacking Begins

As Ed entered his teenage years, he encountered the same struggle all teenagers have to deal with—feeling like they’re adults but being treated like children. This was where he really started questioning the rules—if there wasn’t a good justification for a rule to be followed, it was just a power trip. At this time in his life, Ed thought in terms of black and white—binary is only 0 or 1, false or true. He hadn’t developed nuance.

For Edward Snowden, hacking was the main part of his teenage rebellion. To Edward Snowden, hacking was the most educational, healthiest, and sanest way to establish independence. Hacking is a great way to put yourself on equal footing with an adult because all you have to do is reason, which doesn’t have anything to do with your age.

Edward Snowden: Hacking School

For Edward Snowden, hacking wasn’t just about breaking into systems. It was also about developing tricks and shortcuts. On Ed’s first day of school when he was 13, his teachers gave out their grading policies and syllabi. For the first time, Ed knew how grades were calculated. And once he knew how the system worked, he could see how to hack it.

Homework, papers, class participation, tests, and quizzes were all worth a percentage of his history grade. Homework took Ed a long time, he didn’t need to do it to do well on quizzes and tests, and it was only 10 percent of his grade. If he stopped doing it and just forfeited the 10 percent, he’d still easily pass the class. Other classes had similar percentage breakdowns, and he stopped doing homework. 

This gave him a lot of free time—until he explained his calculations to his math teacher when asked why he never did homework. His teacher smiled, but the next day, he gave out a new syllabus that stated anyone who missed more than six homework assignments would automatically fail.

Edward Snowden: Hacking in the Traditional Sense

Ed also did some computer hacking. As a hacker, Snowden wasn’t stealing anyone’s identity—even if that had occurred to him and he’d wanted to, the Internet wasn’t yet monetized and the only theft he’d heard of was “phreaking,” getting free phone calls. Instead, he hacked games to give himself extra lives or special abilities. 

Ed also hacked the website of the US’s nuclear research facility, Los Alamos National Laboratory. Ed was worried about nuclear war and found himself researching the US nuclear program. He ended up on the Los Alamos National Laboratory website and quickly discovered a security problem.

The lab used an open directory structure on their website. This means that the website’s URL showed where and how the site’s files were organized. For example, a URL in an open directory structure might look like this: site.com/sitefiles/docs/publicfile.doc. Publicfile.doc is the document the website intended to show you, but you can access all of the documents in the file tree by typing site.com/sitefiles. 

Using this knowledge, Ed was able to access some documents that only employees with security clearances should have been able to. It was personal info rather than blueprints of the plant, but it still scared him. He emailed the lab’s webmaster, who never responded. Next, Ed tried calling the lab. He left a voicemail for the IT department and waited, checking the site regularly to see if the structure was fixed. Weeks later, the lab called to tell him they’d fixed it and thanked him. They realized he was a teenager and told him to get in touch when he was 18.

Edward Snowden: Hacking Beginnings & Teen Rebellion

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Edward Snowden's "Permanent Record" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Permanent Record summary:

  • What Ed Snowden discovered that caused him to completely lose faith in the government
  • How Snowden led the bombshell reports of US mass surveillance
  • How Snowden is coping with his treatment as both patriot and traitor

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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