WikiLeaks

The Age of Easy Leaks

The WikiLeaks revolution is much larger than WikiLeaks.

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Of course they made a movie about Julian Assange. He's a complicated character being pursued by some of the most powerful people on the planet. It's a scenario that just screams to be filmed.

But while The Fifth Estate—which opens in theatres Oct. 18—may turn out to be a compelling picture, it probably won't shed much light on the revolution represented by WikiLeaks, Assange's website that specializes in publishing secret information. It's not likely to shed that light for the same reason the story is such an attractive idea for a film in the first place: It's about Julian Assange, a man whose adventures and personality threaten to obscure the conditions that thrust him into the news. Assange may have taken advantage of the circumstances that made the world ripe for WikiLeaks, but those circumstances were here before Assange came along and they aren't going to disappear when he departs.

As the security specialist Bruce Schneier put it, "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." Today anyone with access to the Internet can publish information, and getting hold of that information can be far simpler than it was in the era when files were actual pieces of paper. Edward Snowden, the leaker who exposed the U.S. government's PRISM program, left his job with thousands of documents on a tiny thumb drive. That would have been harder, and the contraband much heavier, in the old days.

Snowden made a big personal sacrifice when he leaked that data, but not every large leak need carry so big a risk. Less formidable federal agencies have secrets, too. So do lower levels of government. So do businesses, unions, charities, churches, universities and political parties. In the age of easy leaks, any institution that has both damaging secrets and disgruntled employees has a reason to fear.

A century ago, North America's most radical union—the Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies—understood what a powerful weapon whistleblowing could be. "Workers on the railroads can tell of faulty engines, unsafe trestles," one Wobbly pamphlet proposed. "Marine transport workers would do well to tell of the insufficient number of lifeboats, of inferior belts, and so forth. The textile worker can tell of the shoddy which is sold as 'wool.'…The workers carry with them the secrets of the masters. Let them divulge these secrets, whether they be secret methods of manufacture that competitors are striving to learn, or acts of repression directed against the workers." The Wobblies called that tactic "open mouth sabotage." Now that mouth can open wider than ever before.

If you just focus on Assange and WikiLeaks, you might miss that. Schneier's comparison to the music industry is apt. There was a time when the major labels thought they could stop file-sharing by neutering a company called Napster. They succeeded in plugging that hole, but they couldn't stop the flood. Now those labels are being forced to face a choice they thought they could avoid in the Napster days: Adapt, or suffer the consequences.

That's the same choice that large, opaque, hierarchical institutions face in the age of easy leaks. Some of those organizations are now pondering just what such an adaptation would require. 

Option 1: Track down leakers before they can leak. Two years ago this month, the U.S. government created the Insider Threat Program, describing the effort as an attempt "to ensure the responsible sharing and safeguarding of classified national security information." Among other things, this entails asking federal employees to watch one another for signs that someone might want to spill some secrets.

Yet it isn't always obvious that someone is planning to leak. The authorities have circulated a list of "behaviours that may indicate an individual has vulnerabilities that are of security concern," but they're relying on a dubious, untested profile of a security risk. A workplace where people are encouraged to monitor one another for vaguely defined "indicators" is a workplace that's risking a serious decline in morale. Then you're back at the problem of disgruntled employees with secrets at their fingertips.

Option 2: Give secret information to fewer people. In the United States, nearly five million federal employees and contractors have access to at least some classified data. We're already seeing some efforts to cut that number back: After Snowden's leak, for example, the National Security Agency's director declared his intention to replace the vast majority of the agency's system operators with machines.

But not every job can be automated, and walling off information from the remaining human employees has consequences. As anthropologist Hugh Gusterson pointed out in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, segmenting access to data "runs counter to the whole point of the latest intelligence strategy, which is fusion of data from disparate sources." Centralizing information and cutting off communication make an organization less effective—particularly an organization that is supposed to combat hidden threats.

Option 3: Just don't classify so much. In 2012, the Public Interest Declassification Board pointed out that in Washington, "most classification occurs by rote," with a bureaucratic culture that "defaults to the avoidance of risk rather than its proper management." That is true, and it is worth changing. But it doesn't tell the authorities what to do with the secrets that are left over.

There are other options, I'm sure, and other experiments to come. In the meantime, our intensified ability to copy and transfer information will transform the power dynamics both between and inside institutions. Some of those organizations will react by becoming more horizontal and transparent. Others will clamp down in fear. Still others will haphazardly dabble in both approaches. If The Fifth Estate manages to tell that story, I'll be happily surprised.

This article originally appeared in The National Post.

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12 responses to “The Age of Easy Leaks

  1. I saw the movie at a pre-screening and we weren’t allowed to bring in cell phones. The irony!

  2. I can’t believe what I am reading. Walker assumes a degree of non-conformity in the populist that just is no longer there thanks to our public schools, and he ignores the ability of our future totalitarian state to spy on everyone and to exact retribution. And if he is correct, why aren’t we seeing more leaks now. I hope he is right but I doubt it.

    1. Open mouthed leaks are just the start. Look at all the cops who are caught on cell phone cameras and exposed for the lying frauds they are. That’s a form of leaks too.

      You want your non-conformity? Those cell phone videos are more anti-establishment than anyone could have dreamed of 20 years ago.

      The people with the most to lose from open mouthed leaks and cell phone videos are the establishment. What happens when cameras are so ubiquitous that any crime in public can be almost instantly traced back through publicly accessible (but private) personal webcams? It means no more secret meetings for Cheney. It means Bloomberg will have a cow every single morning for the rest of his life. Whose secret spy cam will you watch when you can choose between Trump and a neighbor? You might choose the neighbor; very few others will, but lots will choose to snicker at Trump and Pelosi and others who want power for the privacy it brings.

      1. Sorry Scarecrow, but why do you assume you will still have a free internet and media to share your accounts of fraud? Again let’s hope you are right, but when I look into the eyes of Nancy Pelosi I get the willies and Hillary would walk over your dead body to get what she wants.

  3. And how many of us on this site already wonder if we are not on some list. Talk about chilling!

    1. Oh, you’re just being paranoid.

      But I’m definitely on a list. Really.

  4. Excellent article, as expected.

    It’s interesting, though, that the original place of publication gives the title as “Wobblies, ‘Open Mouth Sabotage’ and the History of American Whistleblowing”, emphasizing the *left*-libertarian tradition of anti-capitalist whistleblowing, but here at Reason the title does not reflect that aspect of the article.

    1. I changed the title when I put it on the Reason backend. A long headline’s fine for a newspaper, but for here I wanted something shorter and more present-focused.

  5. Option 3 is the most compelling. Seriously, too much crap is stamped “Top Secret” in this country for no good reason other than protecting the government or somebody whom some bureaucrat in the government cares about from embarrassment.

    I mean, it’s not like the embarrassment will actually stop the embarrassment-causing activities. “Oh, a contractor completely effed up the coding of software that millions of Americans were going to rely upon? Well, that’s just terrible, we’ll just have to make sure we don’t release the name of this incompetent contractor to the public and give them a bigger contract next time.” I mean, THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENS…

  6. Won’t be long before IP becomes old news.

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