A Blog by Jonathan Low

 

Feb 3, 2019

Living In the Age of Big Leaks

The frequency and scale of massive leaks has desensitized society to their implications and impact, in part by devaluing our sense of the importance of the information being revealed. JL


Scott Shane reports in the New York Times:

We live in an age of leaks. A terabyte of data — 100 million pages or 1,000 hours of video — can now be slipped into your pocket on a thumb drive and carried off with your keys and chewing gum. Rechnological change has made information vulnerable to hacking, which means that insiders are no longer the only people capable of leaking it. If information is power, that is a lot of power in a small package. It is being wielded daily. Mass leaks have become so routine globally that only the most extraordinary get attention.
On the very day that Roger Stone was charged with lying about a momentous set of leaks that originated with Russian hackers, a feisty band of transparency activists led by a Boston woman posted a voluminous collection of leaks from inside Russia.
It was less a coincidence than a trend, a consequence of technology and a defining feature of our time. We live in an age of leaks, for better or worse.
The better part is easy: We get access to information powerful people and institutions want to keep secret. The worse part is more complicated, and requires more thoughtful consideration than it gets: Leaks often violate laws against hacking or theft and invade people’s privacy, not always with any higher purpose. They can be powerful, unpredictable, unfair weapons. They can allow one country to meddle, from a safe distance, in the affairs of another.
To wit: The Democratic Party emails and documents, hacked by Russian intelligence and broadcast by WikiLeaks with the veteran political trickster Mr. Stone as cheerleader, may have allowed a foreign power to help elect an American president in 2016. Yet the new, sprawling archive of Russian leaks, ranging from government ties to the Russian Orthodox Church to the Kremlin’s management of its invasion of Ukraine, showed that the Russian state is a target of leaks these days as often as it is a leaker.


Mass leaks, on a scale inconceivable back in the paper-only era, have become so routine globally that only the most extraordinary get extended attention. In South Africa, a Commission of Inquiry Into State Capture is fueled by “Gupta Leaks,” leaked emails detailing corrupt ties between government officials and the Gupta family’s business empire. In Hungary, a Portuguese man was just arrested and admitted to playing a central role in “Football Leaks,” which exposed unsavory financial dealings in international soccer. In Singapore, an American and his Singaporean physician boyfriend were accused of leaking the names of more than 14,000 people with an H.I.V. diagnosis.
Leaks, an ancient metaphor, are a venerable human institution. “A talebearer revealeth secrets,” says Proverbs in an early complaint, “but he that is of a faithful spirit concealeth the matter.” Thomas Paine, the revolutionary pamphleteer, has been described as the first American to be fired for leaking classified information — in 1779.
But only in recent years have leaks attained industrial scale. A terabyte of data — 100 million pages or 1,000 hours of video — can now be slipped into your pocket on a thumb drive and carried off with your keys and chewing gum. If information is power, that is a lot of power in a small package. It is being wielded daily for many purposes.
The same technological change has made information vulnerable to hacking, which means that insiders are no longer the only people capable of leaking it. On a regular basis, companies announce cyberthefts of customer data, causing bureaucratic hassles for millions of people. At the other end of the scale, leaks occasionally target individuals for embarrassment or extortion.
But the most consequential leaks — many of them more like floods — are those that wield political power. The diplomatic cables Chelsea Manning gave to WikiLeaks in 2010 shed light on the hidden world of diplomacy. Edward Snowden’s National Security Agency documents, shared with journalists in 2013, prompted the White House, and then Congress, to set new limits on the surveillance of Americans. The Panama Papers, leaked to a German newspaper in 2015, prompted investigations of tax evasion and money laundering around the world.


On balance, those gargantuan disclosures seem largely beneficial — even if not all diplomats, intelligence officers and tax lawyers would join the applause. But the big leaks of the current era are not all about war and peace, government oversight or financial equity. For journalists, the catnip appeal of scoops can overwhelm careful judgment about the value of the disclosures and problematic questions about sources.
What about the Sony Pictures leaks — an act of vengeance by the North Korean leader for an insulting movie — which exposed mostly gossip, business secrets and employee Social Security numbers? What of the leaks of personal information from AshleyMadison.com, which helps facilitate extramarital affairs?
What, for that matter, about the 20,000 Democratic National Committee emails and 20,000 more pages of emails to and from John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, that Mr. Stone is accused of lying about? That breach, weaponized by Russia in the midst of a presidential contest, illustrates well the ambiguous nature of such intrusions.
The leaks were, after all, not disinformation, even if they were obtained by criminal means. The emails were real, which was why they drew so much media attention. “Four of the Juiciest Leaked Podesta Emails,” USA Today trumpeted a month before the 2016 election. The New York Times was only a little more demure: “Highlights From the Clinton Campaign Emails.”
The leaks gave Mrs. Clinton cause to regret that she had not released the speeches she had delivered to private companies, which were now made public under the worst possible circumstances. It was agony for top Democrats whose private, sometimes snarky comments were aired.
For Donald Trump and his supporters, including his old friend Mr. Stone, the emails were a campaign boon, a justified public airing of hidden Clinton truths. For future political historians, they may offer a few meaningful tidbits of insight into the Clinton campaign.
Yet the leaks cannot be separated from those who made them happen: A foreign intelligence service intervened with significant impact on behalf of one side in an American election. Imagine that Russian officials had ignored Mrs. Clinton and instead hacked and published documents exposing Mr. Trump’s epic tax dodges and secret payments to paramours. Even die-hard Trump partisans might recognize that the race could have come out the other way.


A different thought experiment, however, may be more timely. How would the leaks of Democratic emails be viewed had the data been hacked or leaked by a disgruntled American — a false story that Russia and Trump supporters pushed in 2016 — with

no taint of foreign meddling? More Americans might accept the leaks as regrettable but inevitable political roughhousing.
Such a scenario may be worth pondering. American political operatives, we recently learned, have begun to imitate Russia’s 2016 operations on social media, with two experiments in the 2017 Alabama Senate election.
So it is almost certainly only a matter of time before Americans try out the hack-and-leak technique as well, as any student of old-school campaign dirty tricks can tell you. Just ask Roger Stone, who wrote in his book “Stone’s Rules”: “To win you must do everything.”



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