Heartbeat: Snowden Program Collected Key Documents

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What does the program from Edward Snowden, Heartbeat, do? How does Hearbeat work and why did the NSA need it? How did Ed use it in preparing to blow the whistle?

Heartbeat is a program written by Edward Snowden. It was used to pull posts from various intelligence databases.

Read about Heartbeat, Snowden, and the unparalleled access to large amounts of intelligence data.

Heartbeat: Snowden Program Used by NSA and Against It

Ed’s research included “readboards”—NSA versions of news blogs. He wrote a program called Heartbeat that was similar to EPICSHELTER—it would pull new and unique readboard posts from intelligence databases of the NSA, FBI, CIA, and the Department of Defense’s Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System. 

As written by Edward Snowden, Heartbeat quickly pulled so much data that people complained about how much digital storage space it was taking up, so Ed decided to share the program. He set up Heartbeat to curate personal readboards for NSA officers based on their office, clearance, and interests. All the documents Heartbeat pulled Ed stored on a server that only he managed so that he could easily search all the available intelligence info.

Preparing For a Leak: Edward Snowden, Heartbeat, and the NSA

Using Heartbeat, Snowden pulled documents that proved that the US government was carrying out mass surveillance. He found schematics and engineering diagrams that showed upstream collection was possible.

In order to blow the whistle about mass surveillance, Snowden needed to get documents from the NSA. While those were a challenge to acquire, Ed had access. With his program Heartbeat, Snowden could collect any information he wanted. The NSA did log that Ed had read files. However, as the manager of Heartbeat, Snowden showing up in the log as accessing or reading files would not be suspicious.

Overcollection: Snowden Struggles to Organize Files

Ed didn’t need everything Heartbeat pulled. The challenge was organizing everything. He only wanted to leak documents about mass surveillance, not the NSA’s other secrets. Heartbeat also kept a log of everything he did. So, when he needed to do things like encrypting, compressing, and deduplicating, there was a record of it because of Heartbeat. Snowden couldn’t work with the files directly on the server because the NSA would see what he was up to. Additionally, he couldn’t organize the files on a regular office computer because the NSA had upgraded to computers that did all their processing and storage on the cloud. 

There were, however, some older computers in the office with enough power to do their own local processing. Ed invented a compatibility project—he wanted to make sure that Heartbeat was compatible with older operating systems—and transferred files onto the old computers. As long as he was careful about what networks he connected the older computers too, no one would see what he was doing on them.

Heartbeat: Snowden Program Collected Key Documents

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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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