In 2013, journalists began revealing secrets associated with members of the Five Eyes (FVEY) intelligence alliance. These secrets were disclosed by Edward Snowden, a US intelligence contractor. The journalists who published about the documents did so after carefully assessing their content and removing information that was identified as unduly injurious to national security interests or that threatened to reveal individuals’ identities. During my tenure at the Citizen Lab I provided expert advice to journalists about the newsworthiness of different documents and, also, when content should be redacted as its release was not in the public interest. In some cases documents that were incredibly interesting were never published on the basis that doing so would be injurious to national security, notwithstanding the potential newsworthiness of the documents in question.
Since 2013 I have worked with the Snowden documents for a variety of research projects. As part of these projects I have tried to decipher the meaning of the covernames that litter the document (e.g., CASCADE, MEMORYHOLE, SPEARGUN, or PUZZLECUBE), as well as objectively tried to summarise what is contained in the documents themselves without providing commentary on the appropriateness, ethics, or lawfulness of the activities in question.
In all cases the materials which are summarised on my website have been published, in open-source, by professional news organizations or other publishers. None of the material that I summarise or host is new and none of it has been leaked or provided to me by government or non-government bodies. No current or former intelligence officer has provided me with details about any of the covernames or underlying documents. This said, researchers associated with the Citizen Lab and other academic institutions have, in the past, contributed to some of the materials published on this website.
As a caveat, all descriptions of what the covernames mean or refer to, and what are contained in individual documents leaked by Edward Snowden, are provided on a best-effort basis. Entries will be updated periodically as time is available to analyse further documents or materials.
In assessing any document I undertake the following steps:
- Re-create my template for all Snowden documents, which includes information about the title, metadata associated with the document (e.g., when it was made public and in what news story, when it was created, which agency created it), and a listing of the covernames listed in the document.
- When searching documents for covernames I move slowly through the document and, often, zoom into charts, figures, or other materials in order to decipher both covernames which are prominent in the given document as well as covernames in much smaller fonts. The result of this is that in some cases my analyses of documents indicate a wider number of covernames being present than in other public repositories which have relied on OCR-based methods to extract covernames from texts.
- I read carefully through the text of the document, sometimes several times, to try and provide a summary of the highlights in a given document. Note that this is based on my own background and, as such, it is possible that the summaries which are generated may miss items that other readers find notable or interesting. These summaries try and avoid editorialising to the best of my ability.
- In a separate file, I have a listing of the given agency’s covernames. Using the listed covernames in the summary, I work through the document in question to assess what, if anything, is said about a covername and whether what is said is new or expands my understanding of a covername. Where it does, I add additional sentences to the covername in the listing of the relevant agency’s covernames along with a page reference to source the new information. The intent, here, is to both develop a kind of partial covername decoder and, also, to enable other experts to assess how I have reached conclusions about what covernames mean. This enables them to more easily assess the covername descriptions I have provided.
- There is sometimes an editorial process which involves rough copyediting and peer review. Both of these, however, are reliant on external parties having the time and expertise to provide these services. While many of the summaries and covername listings have been copyedited or reviewed, this is not the case for all of them.
- Finally, the new entries are published on this website.
Commonly Asked Questions
Why isn’t XXX document included in your list of summarised documents? It’s one of the important ones!
There are a lot of documents to work through and, to some extent, my review of them has been motivated either by specific projects or based on a listing of documents that I have time to assess. Documents have not been processed based on when they were published. It can take anywhere from 10 minutes to 5 hours or more to process a given document, and at times I have chosen to focus on documents based on the time available to me or by research projects I am undertaking.
Why haven’t you talked about the legal or ethics dimensions of these documents?
There are any number of venues where I have professionally discussed the activities which have been carried out by, and continue to be carried out by, Western signals intelligence agencies. The purpose of these summaries is to provide a maximally unbiased explanation of what is actually in the documents, instead of injecting my own views of what they describe. A core problem in discussing the Snowden documents is a blurring of what the documents actually say versus what people think they say, and the appropriateness or legality of what is described in them. This project is an effort to provide a more robust foundation to understand the documents, themselves, and then from there other scholars and experts may have more robust assessments of their content.
Aren’t you endangering national security by publishing this material?
No, I don’t believe that I am. Documents which I summarise and the covernames which I summarise have been public for many, many years. These are, functionally, now historical texts.
Any professional intelligence service worth its salt will have already mined all of these documents and performed an equivalent level of analysis some time ago. Scholars, the public, and other experts however have not had the same resources to similarly analyse and derive value from the documents. In the spirit of open scholarship I am sharing these summaries. I also hope that it is helpful for policymakers so that they can better assess and understand the historical capabilities of some of the most influential and powerful signals intelligence agencies in the world.
Finally, all of the documents, and covernames, which are summarised have been public for a considerable period of time. Programs will have since been further developed or been terminated, and covernames rotated.
Why haven’t you made this easier to understand? What is the narrative across the documents and covernames?
I regard the content published here as a kind of repository that can help the public and researchers undertake their own processes of discovery, based on their own interests. Are you interested in how the FVEY agencies have assessed VPNs, encryption, smartphones, or other topics? Then you could do a search on agencies’ summary lists or covernames to find content of interest. More broadly, however, I think that there is a substantial amount of material which has been synthesised by journalists or academics; these summaries can be helpful to assess their accuracy in discussing the underlying material and, in most cases, the summaries of particular documents link to journalistic reporting that tries to provide a broader narrative to sets of documents.
However, I am cognisant that some of the material is frankly challenging to read. This was the case for me when I started reading the Snowden documents, and actually led to several revisions of reading/revising summaries as I and colleagues developed a deeper understanding for what they were trying to communicate. To some extent, reading the Snowden documents parallels learning a novel language insofar as it is frustrating at first but, over time, you develop an understanding of the structure and grammar of the language. The same is true as you read more of the summaries, underlying documents, and covername descriptions. My intent is that with the material assembled on this website the time to become fluent will be massively reduced.