Why Wikileaks and social media have changed espionage

There has been a lot of talk over the past few weeks around Wikileaks and its founder, Julian Assange, but amid the calls for treason and even for his death, there is one discussion that is not taking place. The key element to this story, and the one that seems to be getting overlooked by the media and the talking heads, began back in June when Wired initially reported on a U.S. Intelligence Analyst arrested in a Wikileaks video probe. According to the blog, PFC Bradley Manning, 22, of Potomac, Maryland was arrested for his involvement in posting classified videos to Wikileaks, and foreshadowed things to come when boasting to a former computer hacker that, “Hillary Clinton, and several thousand diplomats around the world are going to have a heart attack when they wake up one morning, and find an entire repository of classified foreign policy is available, in searchable format, to the public.” Then came the massive release of documents at the end of November, and the promised release of more documents by Julian Assange, even as he is hunted across the globe for sexually related charges. There are enough people to write about the leaked cables, various diplomats, and the sex scandal. I am not here to write about that, and frankly have no interest in looking at any documents, considering they are still classified, and I don’t have a need-to-know. What I am interested in, and find to be the underlying story within this story, is the role of social media and the psychological factors related to PFC Manning’s alleged release of millions of classified documents. According to Wired, former hacker Adrian Lamo expressed this about Manning, “He was in a war zone and basically trying to vacuum up as much classified information as he could, and just throwing it up into the air.”

PFC Manning, Wired.com

I have no details of Manning, nor do I know anything about his motives other than what I can read in a few quotes from Wired. But what seems to be the case, what one could deduce from these quotes, is this act is precedence setting. From the limited knowledge of the history of espionage, in most cases the leak of classified material most always involves another party interested in that information, i.e. foreign government, agency, etc. If PFC Manning released millions of classified documents purely because he felt the citizenry had the “right” to know the material, and was not coerced by money or foreign influence, then that means that the same factors that led the fictional Tyler Durden to erase debt by destroying credit card records in Fight Club, are now beginning to creep into the consciousness of the young soldier.

Social media is a powerful thing. The ability to connect with others across geographical boundaries is changing the way we do business, and interact with others. The ability to share information instantly at your fingertips is beginning to unlock global trends in consciousness. If analyzed properly we now have the capability to witness culture and consciousness in real time. Not only do we know what people are thinking globally, but we can see how people are thinking as a group at that moment in time. We are not there yet technologically and analytically, and this isn’t a blog about social media (although I promise I will start to write more on that topic), but one can see how this desire to share information openly without borders is exactly what PFC Manning believed he was doing. Not because he was some righteous radical looking to change the world, i.e. Julian Assange. Frankly Assange would think that, he is your classic digital immigrant who if not running Wikileaks would be writing nonsense blogs about how social media is “culture changing.” He would think he is creating a revolution by putting up a server for classified leaks, but that is not what drives a 22 year old or digital native. A 22 year old or younger just shares, because many believe all information should be open. Whether they are at a friends house watching a movie, or getting drunk at some bar, the act of sharing a status, images, video, or other media has become second nature to them, and will become even easier over the next few years as technology progresses.

Enter the role of security and the need for secrets. Not just in the military, but in corporate America or even in your own household, the need for public knowledge versus secret or proprietary information is necessary for a plethora of reasons. Reasons that range from the loss of lives in the case of military to the loss of revenue and thus jobs in the case of corporate espionage. These “secrets” are there for a reason. PFC Manning as an Intelligence Analyst should have known why things are secret and why things are public. He was trained on these topics, and would know the significance of leaks on the safety of his fellow soldier. However, it seems he clearly believed the information being kept secret was worthy of public consumption. According to Wired a friend of Manning had this to say on his motives, “He wanted to do the right thing,” says 20-year-old Tyler Watkins. “That was something I think he was struggling with.” But when dealing with millions of documents this kind of thinking is extremely dangerous and naive.  Are we to think that PFC Manning went through every document and took in account his fellow soldiers well-being before deciding to download the file? He is a 22 year old kid. I think the answer is obvious. His access to the information is clearly disturbing, and one can debate about operational security, and how he was able to single handedly retrieve so much information. But this blog isn’t a conspiracy rant so go elsewhere for that. What we do know today is that as younger generations go into the workforce, and especially the military, there is a massive culture change happening. The climate around information sharing will be second nature and one that should be embraced, not feared. We can look at cases like enterprise 2.0 in industry and in the case of military and government, milSuite and Intelink. However, both military and industry will have to understand the PFC Mannings of the future, because no longer will the James Bonds of the world need to pay off citizens for secret information. Future espionage will now be achieved in the simple action of a Google search, and everything will be available to them. We can only take solace in the fact that our information is indexed by Google and they are really a secret arm of the NSA (alright so I couldn’t resist and had to throw in some conspiracy nonsense), at least we know they’re secure.

This massive collection of personal thoughts and information, from both tacit and explicit knowledge, will truly change the way secrets are kept and shared. The importance of legitimate secrets versus the broadening of what could be shared that is currently being withheld, will be an important debate and one that will define espionage and social media’s role in leaks in the future.  What we do know is that PFC Manning is not alone, and there will be more leaks from bright-eyed, maybe even well-intentioned, individuals who look to shake the status quo and change the way we share information. Instead of pretending these leaks wont happen we must understand why they are in the first place, and do what we can to educate younger generations on the importance of security and sharing. The sad reality of the world is reflected in the lessons we teach our small children when growing up. There are bad people out in the world, and we must always be vigilant, for they will use whatever information they can to hurt us and our way of life. To think otherwise, or to hide behind some Utopian concept or academic intellectual superiority is truly the definition of insanity. Let us hope the sane continue to try and keep us safe from those who look to do us harm, while we learn as a culture to open both our minds and knowledge, when doing so results in positive advancements of humankind.

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