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While working for spies, Snowden was secretly prolific online

Protesters supporting Edward Snowden, a contractor at the National Security Agency (NSA), hold a photo of Snowden during a demonstration outside the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong June 13, 2013.
Credit: Reuters/Bobby Yip
Protesters supporting Edward Snowden, a contractor at the National Security Agency (NSA), hold a photo of Snowden during a demonstration outside the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong June 13, 2013. Credit: Reuters/Bobby Yip

By John Shiffman, Mark Hosenball and Kristina Cooke

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - While working for U.S. intelligence agencies, Edward Snowden had another secret identity: an online commentator who anonymously railed against citizen surveillance and corporate greed.

Throughout the eight years that Snowden worked for the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency contractors, he posted hundreds of messages on a public Internet forum under a pseudonym.

"I can't hope to change the way things are going by overtly complaining, writing letters, or blowing things up," Snowden wrote in 2003 in response to a discussion about corporate greed on the Ars Technica online forum.

"That's not the way a good person does things. I will, however, do what I can with the tools that are available to me."

New information discovered by Reuters about Snowden's employment record, online postings and education comes as U.S. lawmakers grill intelligence officials about how a 29-year-old high school dropout managed to gain access to such top secrets as the NSA's electronic surveillance programs.

According to sources briefed on the matter, Snowden was employed by an unidentified classified agency in Washington from 2005 to mid-2006, by the CIA from 2006 to 2009, when he primarily worked overseas, and by Dell Inc from 2009 to 2013, when he worked in the United States and Japan as an NSA contractor.

He was also a prolific commentator on technology forum Ars Technica, posting approximately 750 messages using the screen name "The True HOOHA" from late 2001 to 2012.

Most of the postings were not political in nature: he dispensed advice about government careers, polygraphs and the 2008 stock market crash. He claimed to own the same gun as James Bond and posted glamour photos of himself. He jokingly compared the video console Xbox Live to NSA surveillance.

One of his postings, however, dealt with the now familiar issue of corporate compliance with government eavesdropping programs. On February 4, 2010, while working for Dell, Snowden commented on a discussion about a major technology company that allegedly was giving the U.S. government access to its computer servers.

"It really concerns me how little this sort of corporate behavior bothers those outside of technology circles," Snowden wrote. "Society really seems to have developed an unquestioning obedience towards spooky types."

It is not clear if his former employers knew about his online persona. The CIA, NSA, Dell and Booz Allen Hamilton - which most recently employed Snowden - declined to comment.

One former national security official said the government should have scrubbed his record harder. But Stewart Baker, former general counsel for the NSA, said holding such views did not automatically disqualify someone for a sensitive government job.

"Maybe the government will have to look at that again but that's a difficult thing to decide," Baker said.

UNDER SCRUTINY

According to the sources, Snowden told employers he took computer classes at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, earned a certificate from the University of Maryland's campus in Tokyo, and expected in 2013 to earn a master's degree in computer security from the University of Liverpool in England.

A Johns Hopkins spokeswoman said she could not find a record of Snowden's attendance but he may have taken correspondence courses for which records are not kept. A Maryland official confirmed Snowden attended at least one summer class. A Liverpool spokeswoman said Snowden registered for an online master's degree in computer security in 2011, but did not complete it.

Born in 1983 in North Carolina, Snowden grew up in a Maryland suburb near the NSA headquarters. He left high school in 10th grade and later earned a G.E.D. At 18, he worked as a webmaster for Ryuhana Press, a start-up promoting Japanese anime artists.

Snowden began posting on Ars Technica on December 29, 2001. He sought technical help for his work at the anime site and a website company called Clockwork Chihuahua.

As early as 2002, Snowden wrote online of his desire to work in Japan: "It is pretty far-fetched, but I've always dreamed of being able to make it in Japan."

An avid gamer, he posted on the ethics of video game piracy in 2003: "I feel the mega corporation is promoting hyper-materialism and I don't like that. That means I want to punish the company in any way I can."

"Legality does not factor into this, getting away with it (OMG dispensing justice LOL!) in order to do it again does," Snowden added. "If my actions contribute to driving the corporation I view as "evil" into the ground, I'll sleep easier at night knowing I have (in my mind) done society a service."

On Ars Technica, Snowden gave more advice than he sought. To others hoping to land U.S. government jobs, he bemoaned high living costs and commuting hassles in Washington.

"My life is great except for the fact that while I'm making twice the average income, I could not afford a house in my zip code without robbing a bank," he wrote in 2006.

And he wrote of life: "We're all in this crazy boat together. Best of luck, comrade."

(Reporting by John Shiffman and Mark Hosenball in Washington, and Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Additional reporting by Robin Respaut in New York; Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson, Tiffany Wu, Doina Chiacu)

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