While UK government officials are said to have been briefing the Sunday Times that the Russians and the Chinese have managed to “crack” the encryption on the Snowden files, cyber-security experts have been casting doubt on the credibility of the story.
The Sunday Times reported this weekend that the top-secret cache of files stolen by Edward Snowden from his former employer the NSA had been decrypted by Russia and China, forcing MI6 to pull agents out of live operations in hostile countries.
The story was built around anonymous briefings by officials from Downing Street, the Home Office and the security services.
In one of the more lurid quotes, one official said Snowden had “blood on his hands” while, in the same line, adding that there was “no evidence of anyone being harmed”.
The article has been savaged by journalist Glen Greenwald who helped break the Snowden story. He slammed the journalists involved, saying in a Tweet, “If you're someone who believes anonymously voiced self-serving government claims, you're dumb. If you're a journalist who prints it, you're worse.”
The government claims come just days after UK terror watchdog David Anderson QC released his 373-page “Question of Trust” report which called for a change in the mechanisms for overseeing the intelligence services.
Privacy groups have called on the government to comment on the record regarding the claims made by the unnamed sources. A Downing Street spokeswoman declined on the basis that they don't comment on leaks.
Sarb Sembhi, director of Storm Guidance, said it would be difficult to believe the security services would have waited three years to begin worrying about the Snowden files. As soon as they knew the files were gone – and despite any assurances from Snowden about the security of these files – any credible security service would have started a risk assessment.
“They would have made arrangements a few years ago – to wait this long would imply that they are amateur and the US and UK governments are not amateur when it comes to protecting their field staff,” he said.
As to a possible motive for the leak, he said: “It could be added justification for the snooping laws that the governments want in the UK and the US. It might be timed to make that case stronger, but it's difficult to say for sure.”
Brian Honan of BH Consulting said the claims in the Sunday Times raised a number of difficult issues about data encryption: “If these claims are true, and many have pointed out why they are not, then we have serious issues regarding how we secure our data,” Honan said. “Edward Snowden is renowned as an experienced user and advocate of encryption tools. If the files he encrypted were cracked then this raises questions over how effective current encryption tools and technologies are against government sponsored adversaries.
“It also poses the question, will the UK government, in particular Mr Cameron, back down from their calls to introduce backdoors into encryption tools? Indeed, given the revelations one would expect the UK government to now be advocates for stronger encryption.”