Snowden Debunks Trump’s Claim The FBI Couldn’t Vet Every Email

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden explained how the FBI might have reviewed 650,000 emails in nine days

Donald Trump isn't convinced the FBI read all the emails in that amount of time — Getty Images
Nov 07, 2016 at 7:16 AM ET

At a campaign rally in Michigan Sunday, Donald Trump raised what probably seemed like a valid question to non-tech savvy folk: How on earth did the FBI manage to vet 650,000 emails in nine days before concluding it still wouldn’t recommend criminal charges against Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server?

“You can’t do it folks,” Trump told the crowd, showing little confidence in the FBI’s ability to scan so many emails in such a short space of time. He concluded: “Hillary Clinton is guilty.” Former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, General Flynn, made a similar claim on Twitter, and even Wikileaks suggested the FBI would need 1,000 officers reviewing the emails in order to finish so quickly.

Except here’s the thing: the FBI probably didn’t read all of those emails by hand. If you believe Edward Snowden, they could have finished most of their work in hours, if not minutes.

FBI director James B. Comey said on Sunday that his staff had been “working around the clock to process and review a large volume of emails from a device obtained in connection with an unrelated criminal investigation,” and that “we have not changed our conclusions that we expressed in July with respect to Secretary Clinton.” Comey was referring to a laptop believed to have been used by Anthony Weiner, the disgraced former partner of Clinton aide Huma Abedin. The FBI ended its original investigation in July, recommending no criminal charges against Clinton, but reopened it after finding messages owned by Abedin on a laptop while investigating whether Weiner used the device to communicate with a minor. The laptop contained 650,000 emails, and “thousands” of those may have been sent to, or received from, Clinton’s private server, The Wall Street Journal said.

According to Newsweek, “almost every email” on the laptop was a duplicate of emails Clinton already handed over to the FBI. That means the FBI had very little work to do. While the organization has declined to reveal the methods it used to vet the emails, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed that if the FBI’s processes are anything like its sister agency’s, the FBI didn’t struggle to review 650,000 emails so quickly.

“Drop non-responsive To:/CC:/BCC:, hash both sets, then subtract those that match. Old laptops could do it in minutes-to-hours,” Snowden said on Twitter Sunday, explaining a simple method to uncover the few emails that were not duplicates of ones the FBI has already seen. The method utilizes hashes, an algorithm used to encrypt messages into shorter strings of text, making it much faster to compare and filter out duplicates, than compare the emails themselves.

Others in the technology community offered up the same time-saving measure to explain the FBI’s fast turnaround. Digital security expert Jonathan Zdziarski said: “Most emails were ruled duplicates, so the first phase probably was to just do basic matching, leaving them with a small number to read.” He added: “I’ve known plenty of investigators parsing multiple terabytes of email folders; 650k emails is an easy gig. Lots of ways to skin a cat.”

That explanation is unlikely to satisfy Trump, who said at his Michigan rally that “the investigations into [Clinton’s] crimes will go on for a long, long time.” That’s despite federal law enforcement stating that the FBI’s review of Clinton’s private email server is now complete, The New York Times reported.

Comey’s letter failed to satisfy thousands of users on social media, who still felt that announcing a fresh investigation so close to the election may interfere with the outcome. Vocativ discovered 22,884 tweets with the words “Comey” and “resign” from 4:00 p.m. EST Sunday, shortly after Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz first revealed the outcome of the investigation, to 4:00 a.m. EST Monday.