November 30, 2010

Internet Realities: Why There May Be Many More Wikileaks

Blog Update (December 4, 2010): Wikileaks Saga Reveals Governments' Hypocrisy, Deep Fear of Internet

Greetings. Literally the entire world seems abuzz about the latest Wikileaks mass dump of diplomatic cables and other data, and while most of the material appears to be "merely" embarrassing (not life-threatening as some officials insist), the analysis of such content is way above my pay grade and I'm certainly willing to let others make those detailed determinations in the long run. Nor will I concern myself here with the possible criminal culpability of those individuals involved.

But this entire incident -- even more so than with previous Wikileaks disclosures -- seems to point out at least one inescapable fact: Governments really do not understand the realities of the Internet.

The current controversy can't even reasonably be called a technology breakdown. It appears rather to be very much a man-made policy and human factors failure.

By placing so much sensitive material online en masse on SIPRNET (even if all was below TS [Top Secret] -- classification) with so many users having access (I've seen numbers ranging from 100's of 1000's to a couple of million!) the stage was already set for this incident. The fact that it was apparently possible for relatively low-level individuals to bulk download this data onto (for example) "Lady Gaga" CD-RW discs only adds to the general sense of policy ineptness in this regard.

Well, the government wanted to widely share intelligence data post-9/11, and it certainly ended up being widely shared, even though way beyond the originally intended scope. But given the systems and policies apparently in place, it would have been something of a miracle if such a disclosure did not eventually occur!

And in the age of the Internet, you don't usually get second chances. Governments tend to love the Net when it serves their purposes -- like the way the U.S. has begun using the centralized domain name system as a global asset forfeiture mechanism in advance of (or even in the absence of) prosecutions related to intellectual property disputes.

But the old "live by the sword, die by the sword" adage still applies. Once "interesting" information has "leaked" in any digital form, it will likely see global dissemination and will widely persist essentially forever -- despite "Whack-a-Mole" attempts at after the fact control.

Gone are the days when a few whispered entreaties (or threats) to a limited number of newspaper publishers and radio/television networks might serve to bottle up, or otherwise limit, the widespread public distribution of associated information.

This truth makes the scenario surrounding the SIPRNET/Wikileaks situation all the more bizarre. Knowing that any single individual could access so much highly sensitive data by themselves, and then have the means to globally distribute it (even without the assistance of Wikileaks), how could such an "intelligence" sharing structure have been allowed to exist? Is this real life or an unaired episode from the old Maxwell Smart Get Smart spy spoof TV series?

There's yet another lesson here, too. Governments around the world are pushing for built-in wiretapping and encryption controls for the Internet, so that authorities can monitor whatever communications they please, whenever they wish. Not only does this fundamentally weaken the security of the Internet, but it also creates the specter (as has already been learned the hard way by officials in Europe in relation to telephone taps) of embarrassing mass information disclosures from leaked data obtained through these mandated backdoor mechanisms.

Wikileaks may be only the beginning. The Internet remains the quintessential tool -- amoral in and of itself -- but reflecting the morality and ethics of both its users and abusers. Information can never again be effectively controlled from "on high" as in "the good old days." Yes, attempts at censorship will persist -- people can be harassed, arrested, jailed, and even executed. But censorship itself can never be very effective in an Internet context -- even purpose-built censorship regimes as in China have learned this lesson.

The sooner that we all realize this -- individuals, commercial firms, governments, and everyone else -- the sooner we can come to terms not only with the realities of the present, but of the likely near future as well.

Many will yearn for days of yore never to be seen again. But the Internet has changed the world -- both in positive and negative ways, and the Wikileaks story is but one aspect of the resulting complexities and possibilities.

This is a truth that must eventually be understood especially by those persons who most detest (even for what they believe to be laudable motives) the communications freedoms of the Internet. The alternative is their making the same sorts of mistakes again and again, often to the detriment of society at large.

You don't have to like this reality. But either accept it or be left behind.

As Maxwell Smart would say, "Sorry about that, Chief!"


Blog Update (December 4, 2010): Wikileaks Saga Reveals Governments' Hypocrisy, Deep Fear of Internet

Posted by Lauren at November 30, 2010 12:26 PM | Permalink
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