Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Manning and Snowden: actually, anyone could "leak"

The news of Bradley Manning’s acquittal on “aiding the enemy” charges in his courts-martial hit the Twitter-verse first, before the convictions on all the “theft” charges were known.

I heard comments on CNN that most classified information is over-classified and probably is classified for political rather than genuine security reasons.  Certainly the “Collateral Murder” video released by Manning (of the “friendly fire” casualties in Iraq did not seem to have any real national security value and had been kept secret to protect the negligent.

But it is true that a great deal of information from informants on the ground is important for national security, and certainly for bringing some stability in many areas of the world, like Afghanistan and now Syria.  When real secrets can be leaked, sources are compromised and informants in “enemy territory” are put in jeopardy, and will be less willing to share information in the future.

While Manning thought he was whistleblowing on misconduct in the Armed Forces, Snowden thinks he is whistleblowing on the way metadata on Americans can be gathered.  And the “nothing to hide” argument can fail any person, because any person can be set up and framed the appearance of other information around some particular incident  (See my Internet Safety posting on July 23, 2013 to get an idea of what could happen to any “innocent” home Internet user.) 

 There is something important, in my mind, to what Assange, Manning and Snowden all say.

One of the issues that I wonder about is indeed the responsibilities of the ordinary computer user or novice blogger.   For one thing, a home user who does not follow property security might indeed be construed as “aiding an enemy”, although apparently not in the sense that Manning was prosecuted.  This sort of talk was common after 9/11.   Another issue is whether a home user who (“accidentally”) receives classified information from a leak when he or she is not cleared and republishes it is committing a crime.  The laws say that she is, although prosecutions of people not actually employed in handling the classified  information almost never happen.   Technically, I am probably violating the law by presenting an embed (legally “distributing”) Manning’s 40-minute YouTube video on my “Films on major threats to freedom” or “cf” blog on April 7. 2010, even though common sense says that my doing so does not harm the country. I don’t think any jury would convict or even indict me just for this.  The embed still works.  I do “worry” about some other embeds or postings for various reasons (like people’s privacy, copyright, reputation, even provocation) but  somehow this video now seems completely innocuous  Tens of millions have seen copies of it.

I have several times received information which I have not published but passed on to authorities.  At least one of these communications had to do with the previous background (in the 1980’s) of Osama bin Laden, sent to me in 2005.  I did spend some time on the phone discussing this with the FBI (I’m surprised that they talked about this on the phone, although they almost bought me a train ticket to come to an office in Philadelphia).   Most of the other communications occurred within the first eighteen months after 9/11, and one of them may have been a warning of a possible overseas attack in SE Asia that was later prevented.  Ordinary citizens who are active in writing about controversy do sometimes attract tips, and this can become a significant issue.
I do take quite seriously that there are some domestic attacks that could happen and could be quite devastating to domestic society (and the value of my remaining years on this planet) if they did.  I think that one of the answers is proper investment in infrastructure, particularly the hardware of the power grid as well as security of cyberspace.   Open discussion and “connecting the dots” in the policy issues is quite appropriate.  However publication of information about some particular vulnerability or specific threat may not be.  I do believe, to some extent, in the maxim, “See something, say something.”  But don’t always broadcast it.
Manning, as we all know, was gay; and it’s fortunate that his anomaly did not forestall ending “don’t ask don’t tell”.   I like to find more convincing gay or “rainbow” role models. 

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