Could WikiLeaks set back information sharing?

Former CIA chief expects a cultural pushback

The recent release of large volumes of classified Afghanistan war documents by the whistle-blowing site WikiLeaks was an example of the Internet’s ability to make leaked material immediately available around the world. Bur retired Air Force general and former CIA director Michael Hayden said the release also could set back the cause of information sharing among intelligence agencies.

For years, the U.S. intelligence community has at least been paying lip service to the concept of information sharing as a reform needed to enable law enforcement and analysts to connect the dots in preventing terrorism. The efforts have been rocky at best, and now, they could get worse, the general said.

“Sharing is not an unalloyed good,” Hayden told reporters last month at the Black Hat Briefings security conference in Las Vegas. “This does expose the dark side.”

Hayden predicted there will be a cultural pushback against sharing in the wake of the leak. Sharing with other agencies breaks down the compartmentalization that the intelligence community relies on to secure sensitive data. Agents and analysts will think twice before hitting the Send button on an e-mail message if they think there's a chance the information will later appear on a public Web site.

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Weeks after the documents were exposed, the worst damage appears to be the embarrassment of the agencies involved. The upside is that the public might now have a better understanding of this protracted war. But while agencies are worrying about their dirty laundry being exposed, expanded efforts to gather information about online activities threaten the public’s right to privacy.

Although the various intelligence agencies traditionally have developed information systems that don't easily share information, with an eye toward isolating and protecting data, the challenge of information sharing has been more cultural than technical. The technology to securely share and access data exists, but in a business in which information is power, everyone seems reluctant to give up any of it. It will require leadership in the intelligence community to overcome negative reaction to the leak, Hayden said.

The WikiLeaks leak is just one facet of a cultural shift toward greater expectations of openness by government, Hayden said. That expectation coincides with the Obama administration’s efforts toward greater transparency by making information not only public but easily accessible online.

Hayden, whose professional roots are deep in Air Force intelligence, isn't entirely comfortable with all of that openness. He questions whether “it will be possible for America to spy if the cultural trend continues.”

But as with most weapons, technology is a double-edged sword. The government is seeking to expand — or at least clarify — its powers to use the same online technology to keep tabs on its people. It remains to be seen who will benefit and who will lose in this new environment. But we should probably be at least as concerned about the exposure of personal secrets to the government as we are about the exposure of government secrets to the people.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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