The ‘leaked document’ offensive

Unlike, say, bullets being fired from a gun, information spread online serves multiple functions at the same time. It can inform, confuse, overwhelm, and alter perceptions simultaneously.

Edward Snowden

For example, Wikileaks’ Cablegate leaks provided valuable insight on the US war machine in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. But the cache of documents also unfairly exposed many legitimate interests of the state.

Edward Snowden revealed an unconstitutional NSA program that the public would have never known about otherwise. His leaks also recklessly exposed scores of legitimate intelligence gathering programs at great expense to the US taxpayer. Their publication also caused tensions between allies and nations with generally good diplomatic relationships.

Both events are Janus-faced. Looked at through the lens of state power, they appear quite different from a domestic news perspective – but the domestic news prism is the one through which many people consumed the information.

While not questioning the accuracy of the content of the Cablegate or Snowden leaks, the positioning and timing of them appeared devised for maximum impact. Some was purely for publicity, yes.

But they were also time for a sense of crisis and embarrassment for the countries whose secrets these were.

In an alternative reading of recent history, you can see the documents dumps by both Wikileaks and the Snowden functioned also as assaults on the credibility and standing of Western power.

Certainly, that is how the Kremlin would see them and exploit them, even if in the West they triggered an urge for reform.

By 2016, the ‘leaked document’ / ‘documents leaked’ Google search term waves are unmistakably aggressive, employing some of the same channels and outlets. The Google chart linked below shows the term ‘leaked documents’ with a blue line and ‘documents leaked’ with a red line.

In the graph below, the first spike in 2010 is WikiLeaks’ Cablegate documents, the cache of State Department documents released to the world. The second spike, in 2013, is the Edward Snowden leaks of NSA documents. The third spike, is of course, WikiLeaks intervention (with Russian backing) in the US presidential election in 2016.

You can argue about the news legitimacy of the varying surges of “leaked documents” – but you can’t argue with the attention they captured. With a clear Russian hand in the latter two, the pattern is clear.

So why look at this now?

Because it shows what a long-term effort is needed to use information to shift a democracy’s discussion. In this case, the leaks helped drive up distrust in the US government on top of the other stated reasons for them.

But to see the real effect of this “leaked document” offensive, look at the geographical chart below.

It makes sense that they appear in English-speaking countries, as the documents were in English.

But when you consider the global reach of the disclosures from the State Department and the NSA, the interest-level within the US and Five Eyes partners, as reflected in search, is telling. (Driving wedges between members of the Five Eyes alliance and weakening it is a long-standing goal of the Kremlin. )

On this data looking back to 2004, there is remarkably little bleed-over into non-Five Eyes partners, which suggests the target for the information was always the alliance itself, especially in 2013 and 2016.

So when discussing the WikiLeaks Cablegate leaks and the Snowden leaks, look at them in the sweep of recent history. The information serves different purposes, depending on who is doing the consuming. While the disclosures triggered legitimate reforms, they were also a case of doxxing a nation-state.

Techno-libertarians: a weak link in democracy’s defense against authoritarians

At the same time Apple bowed to China, Russia banned encryption apps and anonymising tools for its people.

But not before Edward Snowden banged the drum for years about the issue of government intrusions into our privacy in cyberspace. High and mighty, indeed.

Here is where it gets really diabolical and 21st Century.

In Russia’s hands Snowden’s cause has, in the West, helped drive a wedge between the tech community and the broader government, between the governments and the publics, and between the US and allies such as Australia.

Unwittingly, the tech community has become a conduit for such division.

As a former East German Stasi colonel explained in how to use information to attack an enemy: “A powerful adversary can only be defeated through […] a sophisticated, methodical, careful, and shrewd effort to exploit even the smallest ‘cracks’ between our enemies […] and within their elites.”

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Edward Snowden, I can’t hear you now

Has anyone else notice the sudden radio silence of Edward Snowden on Twitter? He certainly had plenty to tweet about right up until November 12.

Then, with no warning, he has gone silent.

I haven’t seen any media appearances since then either.

It’s strange because the debate about encryption has only gotten bigger in the days since the Paris Attack.

Still, no word.

Who knows? Snowden could just be redecorating his dacha. But with the aftermath of Paris attack sparking conversations between governments that otherwise may not have happened, you can’t help but wonder what is on the agenda next for the tech-world’s favorite privacy hero/martyr?

A China-US Technological Cold War

Forget the South China Sea. If you want to see the diciest area of US-China competition, it’s in the technology world – from cyberspace, to the technology industry, to outer space. The September 23 U.S.-China Internet Industry Forum is being described by the New York Times as China flexing it’s tech muscles before the Xi Jinping’s visit to the White House.

Five short observations.

1) This New York Times article describes China and the US in a “sort of technological Cold War” in which the US opposes China’s hacking and China squeezes US tech firms operating in China with unfair rules. A technological Cold War, if accurate, is significant because it points to a long-term struggle.

2) If this meeting is aimed at reminding the US that Beijing can hurt US companies, it also serves to drive a wedge between the US government and US business. This exploits the divisions between industry and government which arose in the aftermath of the Edward Snowden revelations.

3) Some would say those are the point of the Snowden revelations. Sure, for Westerners, Snowden is all about privacy rights. But for Snowden’s host-country, it’s about sowing divisions with the US and West. China may be taking a page from Russia’s playbook by using this tech forum in this way.

4) While the US and companies are tussling over privacy issues, there a questions of how far Corporate America backs the White House in its quest to rein in China’s hacking. After all, these companies stand to make a lot of money from China, though clearly many US tech companies also look to the US government for support in their China struggles.

It’s worth noting that the prospect of US corporate interests colliding with the public interest, epitomized within the US-China tech struggle, was ironically the theme to another Seattle event, the protests outside the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting. It is a major meta-theme in the US election today.

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