The internet has been discussing the mysterious Snowden tweets over the last few days. Put in context, we can still understand a few details of what is going on. A pulitzer prized journalist named Barton Gellman was the reason for the tweets to come. He is a journalist who worked with Snowden in the past.Secure Drop is a way for journalists to safely communicate with sources online with encrypted communication. Encrypted communication can’t be read by prying eyes even when it is intercepted. IC is an abbreviation for the Intelligence Community, so Mr. Gellman appeared to be reaching out to the general public to gather information on Snowden’s story during his time at the NSA. What he got back was a tweet directly from Snowden, followed by a cryptic set of letters.
These 64 letters represent a number consisting of exactly 256 1’s and 0’s in binary. That is significant, because in August of 2013, Snowden released 400GB of “insurance files” over a sharing network so decentralized, even the U.S. government can’t shut it down without breaking the internet.
These files are encrypted with AES-256 bit encryption, a level of protection the NSA itself uses on it’s most secret communication. Without the key, it is unbreakable. The purpose of such a file is for as many individuals around the world to have it in their possession, making it impossible to destroy. If Snowden dies or is detained, a numeric key will be released publicly letting everyone in the world decrypt the files themselves. Unfortunately, the key Snowden recently released did not decrypt these insurance files. However, that doesn’t mean the key was complete gibberish. After Glenn Greenwald reassured the world Snowden was alive, Mr. Gellman posted his own clarifying tweet.
This tweet may still be privately meaningful to individuals holding a file needing this key. There is a very good reason to release the key publicly. If Snowden had simply emailed or mailed the key to someone, he would be making it known to the U.S. government who had the file. With the key broadcast publicly, anyone in the world could have it, making destruction of the embarrassing content a much more difficult task. They simply must wait with the rest of us until the next batch of Snowden’s secrets are made public.