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Defusing the dangers of secrecy

This Machine Kills Secrets cover

In the post-WikiLeaks era, information is a particularly hot commodity. WikiLeaks’ release of diplomatic cables and other sensitive information in 2010 was only the beginning, and it heralded a new era of information commoditization, a crackdown on those blowing the whistle and a battle for security. More than two years later, what has the government learned?

On the surface, it is not necessarily clear that much has changed, even as the spirit of the now-crippled WikiLeaks lives on in examples of so-called hacktivism by the group Anonymous and others. A deeper look, however, uncovers flaws in the federal system that WikiLeaks exposed and that can only be addressed through a whole new way of thinking.

WikiLeaks lifted the veil of secrecy that has long shrouded government activities and sparked a public awareness of federal confidentiality that continues today in the form of whistleblower crackdowns, the over-classification of information and a renewed governmentwide commitment to protecting secrets. In a new book, Forbes senior reporter Andy Greenberg gives us a peek inside the movement to free information from the confines of the government lockdown.

“The lesson of WikiLeaks is that shared secrets leak, and cracking down on those leaks is not going to work,” Greenberg said. “Maybe you can scare some leakers, but many more will just be driven underground into less-controlled parts of the media — WikiLeaks-like platforms — instead of going to, for example, a reporter at the New York Times or Washington Post.”

“That’s what happened with Bradley Manning,” Greenberg said. “He chose an outlet of radical disclosure with no accountability, essentially.”

The traditional means of whistleblowing ... [are] not viable anymore. It’s too risky. -- Andy Greenberg

And Manning is not alone in his actions or the swift judicial responses that have followed. The Obama administration has indicted at least six people under the Espionage Act for mishandling information, despite laws that promise protection for whistleblowers. As Greenberg said, it is a slippery slope.

“What’s clear now is that the traditional means of whistleblowing — going to the press or even to an internal whistleblowing outlet, as [National Security Agency whistleblower] Tom Drake tried to do initially — [are] not viable anymore. It’s too risky,” Greenberg said. “The lesson is that more and more leakers will attempt WikiLeaks-style leaks, trying to cryptographically protect their identity, attempting total anonymity. That creates a kind of leaking of information with impunity that might be even more dangerous than traditional means of whistleblowing in the pre-crackdown era.”

There are lessons for federal agencies, Greenberg added, although implementing them could mean a departure from the current emphasis on perimeter defense and reactive responses to information breaches.

“The parallel lesson is that information sharing is powerful but dangerous, and there needs to be a balance,” he said.

The key to that balance is letting some sun shine into an unnecessarily dark area.

Lifting the veil on information

Although it is not practical or safe to reveal the government’s volumes of secrets en masse, it is a widely held view that too much information is classified and more transparency would be beneficial.

“So much of what WikiLeaks released actually made the U.S. look fantastic,” Greenberg said. “It showed people around the world working earnestly and doing important jobs. What they were doing could have been done in the open, but because it was all kept secret, [that] meant that it was mixed in with stuff that really did have to be kept secret. If a lot of that had been made transparent to begin with, there might not have been motivation for this massive disclosure.”

Despite Obama’s stated policy of transparency, the government continues to keep a tight grip on certain information. It is an attitude that is ingrained in the culture.

“Secrecy is a habit almost…in a way that makes someone just want to tear off the lid,” Greenberg said. “It makes people suspicious of the government, and that’s what motivates a mega-leak like WikiLeaks. You can crack down on leakers and run all kinds of network security that basically spies on all of your employees all of the time…but I’m not sure how easy that is. The other option is to open up everything and make it all public. Over-classification is a problem, and this could be a big part of the solution. But even then there will be some secrets that motivate leakers to publicize.”

Another solution to the threat of major public leaks is having an internal platform for whistleblowers to expose what they see as immoral, unjust or in need of disclosure. Here, the sort of anonymizing technology that was central to the WikiLeaks scandal actually becomes part of an organization and its answer to the problem. “The recommendation I talk about with federal folks is this idea of an internal WikiLeaks-like platform called GlobaLeaks,” Greenberg said. “The leaking tool is meant to be a distributed piece of software that anyone can use to create their own leaking ‘node’ as they call it — a little WikiLeaks run by their own organization. The goal is to create these whistleblowing platforms inside of a corporation or the government. That could be a way to redirect the impetus for dangerous disclosures into internal reforms. It’s a kind of compromise that the government should at least explore.”

It would be a divergence from today’s standard operating procedure in the government, but as Greenberg pointed out, whistleblowing is not a new phenomenon and will not be going away anytime soon. Instead, as technologically savvy leakers search for new ways of freeing information and the lockdown on secrets continues, the conflict will only escalate.

“This idea of truly secret information as shared between millions of people — that is a kind of paradox that is unsustainable. And Bradley Manning proved that,” Greenberg said. “WikiLeaks does represent a new era. Someone will replicate it and make it happen again. We’ve seen glimmers of that in Anonymous running a WikiLeaks platform, and Balkan Leaks is doing it in Bulgaria using the same formula. The potential is still there.… The lessons of WikiLeaks still apply.”

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Reader comments

Wed, Dec 26, 2012 Brian Penny Clearwater, FL

The risk/reward ratio for whistleblowers is great. It's not for everyone, but if you want to learn how to blow the whistle from a veteran whistleblower, check out my blog on the Huff Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brian-penny/im-a-bank-whistleblower-a_b_1952819.html

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