The US National Security Agency (NSA) is reportedly planning to cut system administrator numbers by 90 percent in order to improve data security, its director has said.

In remarks at last Thursday’s International Conference on Cybersecurity, NSA director General Keith Alexander said that the initiative to reduce the numbers from the 1,000 currently employed pre-dated the Edward Snowden affair, although many will still interpret this event as accelerating its implementation.

The aim was to automate processes as far as possible so that individuals had the minimum access to valuable data, he said.

"It [the reduction plan] would also address the number of system administrators we have. Not fast enough, but we plan to reduce the number of system administrators by 90 percent to make networks more defensible and secure," Alexander was quoted as saying my media attending the event.

This sounds swingeing but have some commentators confused headcount with job role?

"What we've done is we've put people in the loop of transferring data, securing networks and doing things that machines are probably better at doing," he elaborated.

“We trust people with data. At the end of the day it’s about people and trust. And people who have access to data as part of their missions, if they misuse that trust they can cause huge damage.”

Comments made to forums by people claiming to be working for the NSA point out that many of the people potentially affected by the plans work for third-party consultancies in the same way Snowden was, latterly, employed by Booz Allen Hamilton. Most likely, these people would be put on other work rather than fired.

Second, it could also be that the plans involve cutting down admin privileges rather than admin roles. In this model, the numbers of admins with the right to copy or move data is reduced, something that is already considered best practice by many private sector firms.

An organisation should never delegate full admin rights to more people than it needs to but this doesn’t necessarily involve cutting jobs.

US intelligence and government agencies have been stung by a series of internal leaks, starting with those allegedly carried out by Bradley Manning in 2010, followed up by the even more serious Edward Snowden breach earlier this year.

The assumption has always been that it is possible to keep most things secret most of the time. But in the digital era, such general security thinking has turned out to be flawed.