WikiLeaks

Our Leaky World

WikiLeaks is only the beginning.

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We've read so much in the last few weeks about Julian Assange, it's easy to forget the WikiLeaks story isn't ultimately about Julian Assange. It isn't even really about WikiLeaks, any more than Watergate was a story about a hotel. This is a story about a new era—one where, in the words of the security specialist Bruce Schneier, "the government is learning what the music and movie industries were forced to learn years ago: it's easy to copy and distribute digital files." If WikiLeaks shut its doors tomorrow, disgruntled soldiers or secretaries or bankers or bureaucrats or cops or managers or their nosy spouses could still send secret documents to Cryptome instead. Or perhaps to OpenLeaks, a forthcoming site in the same genre. Or to any of the other operations of this sort that may appear in the coming years. Or they could just release the information directly to the world, emailing items anonymously to the media or releasing big chunks of data as a torrent.

If you have access to secrets you'd like to share, you no longer need to persuade Bob Woodward or Seymour Hersh to be your intermediary. And the larger the institution with secrets to keep, the more opportunities for leaking there will be.

How will those big institutions react to this leaky new era? One theory says they'll keep fewer secrets and behave with greater care. Forced into the sunshine, they'll revise their behavior; if they're more likely to be caught misbehaving, then they'll be less likely to misbehave.

A rival theory says they'll just try harder not to be caught. Closed hierarchies will close themselves further in a desperate attempt to stop the flow of information. Assange himself suggested this would happen in an essay he wrote in 2006, which the blogger Aaron Bady exhumed and explored in a widely cited post last month. In Bady's words, "the more opaque [an organization] becomes to itself (as a defense against the outside gaze), the less able it will be to 'think' as a system, to communicate with itself. The more conspiratorial it becomes, in a certain sense, the less effective it will be as a conspiracy." Under the sunshine of WikiLeaks, an authoritarian organization "will turn against itself in self-defense, clamping down on its own information flows in ways that will then impede its own cognitive function. You destroy the conspiracy, in other words, by making it so paranoid of itself that it can no longer conspire."

The two theories aren't really mutually exclusive. Different institutions will react in different ways to the new environment, and as the consequences of each approach become clear the world will haphazardly evolve. So far, the globe's most powerful institution—the United States government—has been following Assange's script. With its former secrets sliding freely through the Internet, Washington has ordered its employees to cover their eyes. The Department of Defense put out word that its personnel and contractors should avoid the WikiLeaks site: "There has been rumor that the information is no longer classified since it resides in the public domain. This is NOT true." In the military, visiting an outlet that merely discussed the WikiLeaks cables might prompt your computer to warn you that "YOU HAVE SELECTED A SITE THAT MAY POTENTIALLY CONTAIN CLASSIFIED DOCUMENTS." The message would then go on to explain that "once a user identifies the information as classified or potentially classified, the individual should immediately cease viewing the item and close their web browser." If you work for the Air Force, don't try using your work computer to read The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, or 21 other publications that have published a portion of the WikiLeaks cables; you'll just get a big fat "ACCESS DENIED."

All those papers, of course, are easily available to civilians. This is Assange's scenario come to life, in a manner so absurd it feels like a Robert Anton Wilson satire.

Meanwhile, Washington's loudest voices have refused to recognize the situation they're in, preferring to plunge into paranoia and repression. Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Scott Brown (R-Mass.), and John Ensign (R-Nev.) have proposed a law restricting the publication of information "concerning the human intelligence activities of the United States or any foreign government." Lieberman's office has also pressured companies doing business with WikiLeaks to cut off their ties with the site. Assange's attorney claims that the U.S. has convened a grand jury to explore criminal charges against his client. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), soon to be chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, thinks WikiLeaks should be designated a terrorist organization. "The benefit of that," he elaborated on MSNBC, "is we would be able to seize their assets and we'd be able to stop anyone from helping them in any way, whether it's making contributions, giving free legal advice, or whatever."

If any of those ideas prevails, the consequences will be grim for the First Amendment. It may be a crime to leak diplomatic cables, but it is not and should not be illegal for a third party to publish those cables once they come into its hands. It is impossible to enact rules that would restrict WikiLeaks' right to publish without also restricting the freedom of the papers that have printed the same documents—not unless you adopt an even more odious scheme in which the government gets to decide who is or isn't a licensed journalist. In the short term, then, the paramount issue is the need to fight every attempt to add new limits to our freedom of speech.

In the longer term, the paramount issue is that those limits won't even work. I remember when the record companies were filled with men and women who thought the key to stopping online filesharing was to shut down a company called Napster. I remember when a teenaged programmer named Shawn Fanning was attracting the sort of press that Julian Assange is getting today. In 2010, the average 14-year-old probably doesn't know who Fanning is. He might not even recognize the name Napster. But he knows how to download music for free.

Managing Editor Jesse Walker is the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press).

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78 responses to “Our Leaky World

  1. If the movie U-571 taught me anything, it’s that it is a bad idea to be too trusting of your network security.

    Also, that it was Americans who captured the Enigma coding device. Suck it, Limeys.

    1. Yeah, but it was Turing who made the discovery worthwhile.
      In your defense, Freidman broke the Japanese diplomatic code without actually capturing one of the machines.

      1. Eh, partial and partial. Seems the Poles were the first to actually nab an enigma device – although kudos do go to Turing for his construction of a reverse engineered solution to decrypt the traffic, particularly after the Nazis added an additional cipher wheel, and also gave the Navy a modified version.

        The Navy crypto geeks broke not only the Japanese crypto codes, but the Japanese Naval ‘Purple’ system, as well.

        1. “Seems the Poles were the first to actually nab an enigma device -”
          I’d have to do some looking, but I think a Pole actually sort of made one from memory.
          But a later, 5-wheel, machine was captured from a sub by a US vessel.

          “The Navy crypto geeks broke not only the Japanese crypto codes, but the Japanese Naval ‘Purple’ system, as well.”
          PURPLE was the diplomatic code based on steppers; that’s what Friedman broke; never changed. The Naval code was broken, changed, broken, changed, etc.

  2. As it happens, I’m on an Air Force computer. The notion that you can’t get to the times from an AF computer struck me as silly, so I tried it.
    It seems as though you’re right. I don’t get the access denied message, but I can’t connect to the Times or the Guardian. Other sites work fine.

    Wow.

    1. Interesting take on the gov’t/military’s reaction to WikiLeaks hier.

    2. Interesting that you’re trying to access a non-work site while at work. Thats against the rules.

      Its also the whole point behind what the AF is doing; limiting access to classified info on uncleared AF machines.

      1. Door, barn, cows. Anyone with a passing acquaintance with USAF IT bureaucrats is well familiar with their reaction to ‘new’ stuff being not unlike showing the Quest for Fire cast a Bic lighter – confusion, fear, then panic.

        The USG missed the golden opportunity to stick the pin in Julian’s balloon – by publicly stating the could not verify the validity of the data or source for the info Assange released, thus calling it generally into question; and instead of running around telling people to avert their eyes, etc, insisting that it was classified (a designation that is basically inoperative for material released into the public domain), they could/should ‘re’classify it as “compromised” for internal useage purposes, and lend no official imprimatur whatsoever to any of the material being circulated from or via public sources.

        But, that boat has already sailed and is well over the horizon at this point.

      2. though I’m on an Army system as opposed to Air Force, we often sign the same or similar documents regarding computer usage. Nothing in those agreements forbid us to browse non-work related sites. But certain sites are not allowed, and certain transactions are not allowed. They also just block a lot of stuff anyway.

      3. Well, Reason is a non-work site. But following the news is very much part of what I do for the AF.
        Let those without a non-work site in their history cast the first cookie.
        Incidentally, Ragnar, the rules specifically allow (and encourage for some people) us to check news sites throughout the day in order to keep up with current events.

        1. If reading the news is part of how you’re doing your job, and they’re blocking access to a major newspaper of record, then that’s just more evidence Assange was right. The brilliant “security” measures that hierarchies take in response to leaks will make them more brittle and cumberson, and prevent them from operating effectively.

      4. Well, Reason is a non-work site. But following the news is very much part of what I do for the AF.
        Let those without a non-work site in their history cast the first cookie.
        Incidentally, Ragnar, the rules specifically allow (and encourage for some people) us to check news sites throughout the day in order to keep up with current events.

  3. IRS audits jump by 11 percent; wealthiest, charities targeted:

    http://finance.yahoo.com/news/…..0&.v=4

  4. “How will those big institutions react to this leaky new era? One theory says they’ll keep fewer secrets and behave with greater care. Forced into the sunshine, they’ll revise their behavior; if they’re more likely to be caught misbehaving, then they’ll be less likely to misbehave.” Aaahhh all depends on the definition of misbehaving. If someone is doing something you disapprove of they are misbehaving. Since “Journalists” are making all this information available we need to know more about them so we can determine their motives.

    1. After having blogged twice about Wikileaks, I considered concluding that this type of exposure could lead to tighter controls of secrets by limiting the size of participants, ergo less government. I’ve concluded that the government would find it more to their liking to control the media instead-the first stop will be the internet.

      1. Did any of your 3 readers comment, rectal?

        1. Epi, I don’t care how many angles you shoot that little dick of yours-it’s the smallest I’ve ever seen.

          1. You are the master of incoherence, rectal. It’s good to be skilled at something, I suppose.

            1. I know it gets to you little boy 🙂

            2. I know it gets to you little boy 🙂

      2. This is exactly what the RIAA and MPAA are still trying to do.

        1. I agree but the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA)will be the golden ticket

          1. “”Infringement””

            Yeah, I’d like to see Congress actually define that word. It’s in the 2nd amendment, and they seem clueless as to what it means.

  5. Meanwhile, Washington’s loudest voices have refused to recognize the situation they’re in, preferring to plunge into paranoia and repression.

    And this was entirely…….predictable.

    I think there is a difference between what kind of leaked information we’re referring to with this however. The diplomatic cables that showed that the State Department doesn’t really trust who they act like they do in public wasn’t exactly Pentagon Papers material, but the release of names of Afghan and Iraqi informants who were telling our soldiers where IED’s were hidden or where insurgents and Taliban fighters were holed up is much more dangerous and far more of a security breach than the diplomatic cables.

    Utlimately I don’t believe Ass angel has committed any crimes by releasing the files through Wikileaks, but putting informants lives in danger who were just trying to help US troops is unethical and reprehensible.

    1. Informants should know what they are getting into when they become informants.

      1. But that doesn’t mean outing them isn’t a dick move.

        Granted, if WL has this information, it is already ‘out there’ so the point is probably moot at that point.

        1. That’s my point. WL had the info, and according to former employees wanted to redact the names, but Ass angel wanted to put the info on the site unredacted, and then let the New Agencies who wanted to publish the leaks use their own discretion to redact the names (which to the NYT’s credit, they did).

          Total. Dick. Move.

          1. Dude, the “Ass angel” thing is getting a bit played. I mean, I know you’re proud that you’ve found a way to turn his name into the description of some sort of heavenly homosexual, but it’s about the hundredth time I’ve seen you use it.

      2. “Informants should know what they are getting into when they become informants.”
        So the US should have told them that wikileaks was one of the conditions?

        1. Of course, why diplomatic cables had to announce who the informants were by their real names – that’s a good question, too.

          Sometimes I get the feeling that the people who work in government bureaucracies are clueless assholes. I don’t know why….

          1. Yeah, good call. If the identity of these informants is such an important secret to keep, why were their names not better protected? Obviously there was nothing particularly “secure” about any of this data.

            1. It’s not like there is a Social Security office in Afghanistan and Iraq that is matching super secret id’s with addresses so these folks could be hunted down. Who’s to say that we even know their real names?

          2. For seriously important informants, they do. Those are all known by pseudonyms, even in secret internal correspondence.

            What can you deduce about the importance of the WikiLeaked revelations from that?

  6. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), soon to be chair of the House Homeland Security Committee…

    1. How is he gonna manage that and still be a sportswriter for SI?

  7. I kind of agree with Wikileaks goal, to make the government more transparent by revealing its secrets.
    Problem is, legally there is no difference between Wikileaks publishing classified diplomatic cables and publishing detailed specifications of the F-35’s engine or some other piece of intelligence China would want. Same reason I don’t oppose how Bryan Manning is being treated, publishing classified documents makes you a spy, with or without a handler

    1. You assume the negativity of being a spy. A spy is very good for the person he is working for. In this case…the public. Yes, he’s taking a risk against who he’s spying on, but he benefits those he reveals their secrets to…

  8. One angle I’ve haven’t seen in the news yet; Wikileaks inspires us to relearn what Arendt and Milgram taught us about authority.

    People leak instead of standing up to authority. While we can see why this is true in the military, we are about to see this is true in large bureaucracies also.

    I suspect there will be a torrent of information coming from the big banks. We are about to find out just how systemically immoral they are.

    Hopefully sites like Reason will not let anyone forget we bailed them out while we find just how childish they really are.

    1. “I suspect there will be a torrent of information coming from the big banks. We are about to find out just how systemically immoral they are.”

      I suspect we’ll find they game the government regs to make money. And, or course, ‘THE FREE MARKET!’ will be blamed.

    2. I suspect there will be a torrent of information coming from the big banks. We are about to find out just how systemically immoral they are.

      Then you might want to explain why there has not been more about congress’s culpability in regards to Fanny and Freddy. That stuff is in public domain and no one seems to give a shit.

      Anyway what the banks did is no different then if the US government spent 6 trillion dollars on Coke Cola stock. The Banks saw the price jump so they followed….eventually the market would adjust when everyone figured out that Coke is not worth as much as what the government was paying for its stock.

      Replace the above words “Coke stock” with “loans and loan guarantees” and you get an idea how nasty the banks were. Pretty much just doing what they normally do. Investing in whats hot. Only this time what was hot was a mirage created by our government on a suicide binge.

  9. As with the RIAA there will be absolute clarity as to what should absolutely not be done – and that is precisely what Congress will do.

  10. Jesse, you should totally forward this article to Mike Moynihan!!!! And quiz him on it after.

  11. I know there are some people who think we can just eschew government completely and “just get along” in a post-government utopia, but my experience leads me to very different conclusions.

    There are people out there up to no good and it is a legitimate function of government to interrupt those people’s plans. People who are actively trying to put together suicide bombings of civilian targets, for just one example in an ocean of really sick ideas.

    In order to provide security for citizens, government does need to keep some things secret. Certainly, this is abused, but the benefits of having effective security for critical information outweigh the harm, all else excluded. If you can’t trust your military, your intelligence community, and your state department enough to let them keep some things secret, then the problem is with your agencies, not with the fact that they have secrets.

    The people who have illegally leaked secrets to WikiLeaks need to be prosecuted and the sentences handed down should deter divulging information in this way.

    Julian Assange, amazingly unlikable, has been portrayed by some people as unrepresentative of those who clamor for opening up the floodgates and letting the secrets wash out into the sun for all to see. Wrong. Julian Assange is the PERFECT representative of that school of thought. He is sophomoric and narcissistic in Olympian proportions – just as the notion of leaking the secrets of Western governments is. This is a fad which is founded on amateurism and naivete. The people who leak this stuff are not whistleblowers – they’re idiots. It’s time for them to take responsibility for their idiocy.

    1. So when the government covers up crimes of their law enforcement or military, should people who expose those crimes be labeled traitors and aggressively dealt with?

    2. In order to provide security for citizens, government does need to keep some things secret.

      Then it should put in place the people and technology and operating procedures that maintain this secrecy. If some Joe Schmoe none of us had ever heard of can walk up to a computer and leave the building with thousands upon thousands of allegedly critical documents in his pocket, there just might be a problem with the security measures put in place to protect this “secrecy”.

      Assange is nothing but a predictable reaction to a ridiculous security apparatus and a mindless bureaucracy. You can call him “sophomoric” if you want, but he’s a symptom rather than a cause.

      1. You can call him “sophomoric” if you want, but he’s a symptom rather than a cause.

        He’s still a sophomoric narccisist loser, and I won’t shed a tear if the Swedes lock him away for a decade or so, or the Mossad snuffs him.

    3. So what you’re saying is, yay status quo?

  12. Espionage is a fair game.

  13. “He is sophomoric and narcissistic in Olympian proportions – just as the notion of leaking the secrets of Western governments is. This is a fad which is founded on amateurism and naivete.”

    Typical state loving fascist pig.

    “Of course it’s ok for the government to cover up its’ murders and incompetence. They are there to protect us from the big bad mooslim army whats justa tryin to conquer Amerka.”

    Idiot

    1. So how come Assange and WikiLeaks decided to zero in on the biggest offender of freedom and openness on the planet — the United States?

      If he’s a big hero of openness and liberty, how come he didn’t focus on, say, North Korea? Russia? China? Iran? Places where folks who do what Assange did get not a stern letter from a lawyer but a bullet in the back of the head, or their kidneys sold to Westerners seeking transplants in Hong Kong?

      Personally, my theory is that Assange is a showboating pussy. He goes for the big clumsy goofball easy target, the US, because he knows very well that if he went after the real offenders — if he exposed real evil, the kind of stuff that includes corpses by the hundred — he might be eating his own testicles (without salt) in a smelly basement somewhere.

      1. What the fuck good would “shining a light do” in countries where the powerful act with impunity? The leaders of North Korea could gun down a hundred innocent schoolchildren in broad daylight; no one there would or could do anything, if they had internet connections to find out about it in the first place.

        Triage says the U.S./West is ahead in priority not because its condition is more severe, but because it’s condition is potentially treatable.

      2. How many undeclared illegal wars started on shaky grounds and bad intelligence are North Korea, Russia, Iran, and China currently fighting? Do any of these nations constantly dribble about how free or open they are?

      3. I assume you are comparing law-abiding citizens in these countries to law-abiding citizens in the US, or at least criminals in both realms.

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  26. Your article is good, i like the angle you focused on. I agree absolutely to the fact that the new era have even made it more easy for easy spread of information without any middle ground. whatever happens the social media takes th credit.

  27. “”It is impossible to enact rules that would restrict WikiLeaks’ right to publish without also restricting the freedom of the papers that have printed the same documents?not unless you adopt an even more odious scheme in which the government gets to decide who is or isn’t a licensed journalist.””

    Peter King already figured out a way to do it without trying to decide who is and who isn’t a journalist. Just make them a terrorist organization, the journalist angle becomes moot.

    Not that I agree with that method.

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