Secrecy bested by point, click

Internet's ubiquity speeds worldwide dissemination of leaked classified information

Welcome to the new front of information warfare: the inside edition.

Back in late 1969, when former Rand Corp. military analyst Daniel Ellsberg was secretly photocopying military reports that would come to be known as the Pentagon Papers, no one could have imagined that stealing and publishing classified documents on a global scale could be accomplished without leaving the comfort of one’s office.

WikiLeaks, an online site dedicated to exposing government secrets, brought back memories of Ellsberg by publishing 90,000-plus documents about military activity in Afghanistan. As with the Pentagon Papers, which exposed unvarnished information about the conduct of the Vietnam War, last month’s release appears to be aimed at undermining already eroding public support for a long-running military operation.

And, as was the case 40 years ago, military experts now warn that the release of classified documents could endanger the lives of service members and civilians.

But some experts were even more concerned about the bigger ramifications of the document leak: the fact that such a huge collection of classified documents could be collected and published with such ease, thanks to the Internet.

Just as anyone with rudimentary knowledge of the Web can share his or her home videos with a global audience via YouTube, WikiLeaks and similar sites make it a snap for anyone with an Internet connection to go into the publishing business, should a few national secrets fall into his or her lap.

“It’s clear that it’s easier than ever to circumvent classification restrictions and to broadcast secret information around the world, and that is a serious challenge to the classification system,” Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, told Federal Computer Week reporter Ben Bain.

But WikiLeaks was only the final stop for the classified cache. Nothing of that scale would have been possible if the Defense Department had not done the original spadework, said David Leigh at the Guardian, a newspaper in the United Kingdom that worked with WikiLeaks, the New York Times and Der Spiegel on the project.

The Army not only built a central database that contained six years' worth of sensitive military intelligence material but also gave thousands of soldiers access to it.

However, in the end, the whole system was undone by what Leigh calls the hacker creed to which many WikiLeaks supporters subscribe: “Everything residing in other people’s computers is fair game, particularly if it helps subvert the world’s oppressive empires and corporations.”

The United States is not alone in recognizing that modern communications technology poses a threat to national security. Officials in the United Arab Emirates announced last week that they would ban BlackBerry e-mail, instant messaging and Web-browsing services beginning in October.

The problem is that Research in Motion, which provides the services, manages data at several secure networking centers around the world — all of which lie outside the government’s jurisdiction. That leaves the United Arab Emirates with no legal footing to demand access to BlackBerry data in the event of a court case or national security concern.

“The U.A.E. ban is the latest in a string of skirmishes worldwide for RIM as governments try to monitor and control communications,” writes a team of reporters for the Wall Street Journal. Kuwait, India and China also reportedly have asked RIM for easier access to data as a condition for operating within their borders, according to the newspaper.

The U.S. government, meanwhile, has decided to fight fire with fire, responding to WikiLeaks via social media technology, FCW’s Bain writes.

A tweet sent July 27 from the Twitter account of Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “Appalled by classified docs leak to WikiLeaks & decision to post. It changes nothing on Afghanistan strategy or our relationship w/Pakistan.”

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Reader comments

Tue, Aug 10, 2010 Deborah C. Peel, MD Austin, TX

Imagine how easy it is to breach the security of sensitive personal health information about millions of people. The healthcare industry uses far weaker data security protections than the government. Insurers and other holders of massive amounts of Americans' health information have not bothered to use state-of-the-art security, resulting in millions of "leaked" and "hacked" health records/year. The loss, sale, and theft of personal health information poses serious risks for EVERY person in the US: jobs, credit, and reputations are ruined, in addition to exposing us to identity theft and medical identity theft. See US government site for reports of breaches of sensitive health records at: http://www.hhs.gov/ocr/privacy/hipaa/administrative/breachnotificationrule/postedbreaches.html Sign the "Do Not Disclose" petition to press Congress to put you back in control who can see and use your sensitive digital health information at www.patientprivacyrights.org Deborah C. Peel, MD Founder and Chair Patient Privacy Rights

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