Jan 9, 2015 · 2 minutes

A good offense isn't always the best defense.

That's the takeaway from an interview between National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden and James Bamford, a journalist who has covered the NSA for several decades, concerning the threats posed to the United States in the event of a "cyberwar."

Snowden focuses on the contradiction inherent to the NSA's goals, which are to protect the country's infrastructures while undermining other countries' to gain information. That doesn't work when the same systems are used by both the US and all of its targets.

He isn't the first person to note this problem, either. The NSA has been roundly criticized for reportedly stockpiling exploits which allow it to gather information from networks in the US and within other countries, because it means the problem might never be fixed.

The government has denied claims that it collects these vulnerabilities, but it has said there are exceptions, and a program revealed by the Intercept called AURORAGOLD further disproves the notion that the NSA isn't intentionally keeping security holes secret.

"We need to be focusing more on creating a more secure, more reliable, more robust, and more trusted internet," Snowden told Bamford. "Not one that’s weaker, not one that relies on this systemic model of exploiting every vulnerability, every threat out there."

Such are the dangers of a global infrastructure dependent on many of the same things. The NSA can't listen in on phone calls made in other countries without finding a hole in the phone networks through which it can gather data -- other agencies could do the same.

To use the shield-and-spear metaphor so popular when discussing the NSA: it can either identify holes in the shields everyone uses so its spear can penetrate them, or it can fix those vulnerabilities to make sure another attacker doesn't stab the US right in the gut.

Snowden is also careful to make sure he doesn't overstate the problem, however. "I don't want to hype the threat," he said. "Nobody’s going to press a key on their keyboard and bring down the government. Nobody’s going to press a key on their keyboard and wipe a nation off the face of the earth." (Unless that key is used to launch a missile, I presume.)

The entire interview is a welcome change from the usual rhetoric surrounding cyberwar. Snowden isn't claiming that other nations hold Odin's spear and will smite the US if it doesn't focus on defense. He's just pointing out that we should invest in better shields.

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]