News / Asia

WikiLeaks Exploits Weaknesses in Technology, Human Nature

An employee of Korea Internet Security Center works at a monitoring room in Seoul, South Korea. There is no kill switch for the Internet for the White House. Yet when Congress was exploring ways to secure computer networks, a plan to give the president th
An employee of Korea Internet Security Center works at a monitoring room in Seoul, South Korea. There is no kill switch for the Internet for the White House. Yet when Congress was exploring ways to secure computer networks, a plan to give the president th

Historians, anti-war activists and armchair observers of human nature have had plenty to mull over in recent years thanks to the online group WikiLeaks.

The Web site has published hundreds of thousands of stolen U.S. military and diplomatic documents from as recently as February of this year and as far back as the 1960s. The latest round of leaks, involving diplomatic cables, has renewed efforts by the U.S. government to tighten security on its computer systems.  But cyber-security experts point out the leaks were less a breakdown of technology than of trust.

That fact now has the U.S. government scrambling to secure its computer networks. But Bruce Schneier, British Telecom's chief security technology officer, says even the most secure systems will still be vulnerable to human nature.

"You could take a computer, bury it in the ground, make sure you never turn it on," Schneier says. "Don't tell anybody where it is and it's probably pretty secure. But as soon as you turn it on and have people look at it, you have to trust the people."

Listen to Kate Woodsome's interview with Bruce Schneier


Tightening security

The U.S. Defense and State Departments say they are working to limit users' ability to download material onto removable media, like CDs and USB "thumb drives." And they are working to better track suspicious behavior.

"In general, I think reducing the capabilities of the hardware is probably not the way to go," Schneier says. "Although as a temporary measure after this has already happened, it’s seems like an okay, quick solution. But long-term, it seems kind of dumb."

He says a better solution would be to limit access to the diplomatic cables in the first place. "Make sure people who only need to know them have access to them. And make sure that people who read them, make sure an audit log record is kept."

But that wasn't the case when U.S. Army intelligence specialist Private Bradley Manning allegedly committed one of the biggest information breaches in U.S. history while listening to Lady Gaga's hit song "Telephone." Manning says he lip-synched the words to the song while downloading a quarter-million classified diplomatic cables from the Defense Department's data network onto a Lady Gaga CD.

If access was far more limited, as Schneier recommends, there's no way Private Manning and his Lady Gaga tunes could have touched the network and all the diplomatic cables it stored. But he did. Because at that time, government agencies were sharing more intelligence in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

This week, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters the procedures spread information too widely.   

Demystifying state secrets

Instead of rolling back information sharing, says Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, the U.S. government instead should keep fewer secrets.

"If we kept less information classified, it would be an easier, more manageable task to protect that smaller volume of information," Aftergood says. "When you start getting into tens of millions of secrets being produced every year, you can easily swamp the system and lose control precisely of what you're trying to protect."

Listen to Kate Woodsome's interview with Steven Aftergood

The secrecy system now in place has its roots in the Cold War, when U.S. President Harry Truman signed an executive order in 1951 establishing standards to classify and control information in the name of national security.

But now the defense and intelligence bureaucracy is so massive that is has outgrown, and outdated, that Cold War-era system. "Information is produced and consumed and transferred in completely different ways from what was true 10, 20 or 30 years ago. And the classification system has not yet adapted to that," Aftergood says.

Overhauling the system

U.S. President Barack Obama says he recognizes the problem. Last year, he ordered an overhaul of how the government keeps its top secrets. In May this year, the government disclosed the size of its nuclear weapons arsenal for the first time. And in September, the director of National Intelligence and Defense Secretary Gates revealed the total intelligence budget.

Aftergood calls the changes "momentous."

"Government officials have resisted disclosure of this information literally for decades," he says. "And the fact that it is finally possible to get this information out into the open and do so as a standard practice means that the system is not totally calcified. It's not totally stuck in concrete."

Still, keeping fewer secrets will not stop hackers from trying to break into secure networks.  For about 18 minutes in April, China Telecom rerouted about 15 percent of U.S. and foreign Internet traffic through Chinese servers. According to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, that traffic included communications from the U.S. government and military in a breach far greater than WikiLeaks. It is not clear how the information was, or will be, used.

Man versus machine?

David Gewirtz, the director of the U.S. Strategic Perspective Institute, says cyber-war is inevitable because it is just too easy and effective to ignore.

"Cyber-terrorism is much more like a cancer. It just sort of eats at you from the inside as opposed to traditional terrorism, where you can actually see flames."

Listen to Kate Woodsome's interview with David Gewirtz

Gewirtz says the U.S. is now focused on improving its cyber-defense, but it is an uphill battle because of the sheer number of vulnerabilities. Government computer networks not only need to be protected against state-sponsored cyber attacks and rogue hackers, but also against internal threats such as Private Manning. Cheap consumer electronics like USB "thumb drives," cameras and mp3 players can turn any network user into a threat.

"Everybody has these things, and so we have a million points of weakness instead of just one or two."

Private Manning now sits in military custody where he faces charges of leaking classified documents. As he awaits trial, U.S. officials are left grappling with a security problem that technology alone cannot solve.

You May Like

IS Militants Release 49 Turkish Hostages

Turkey's state-run Anadolu news agency reports that no ransom was paid and no conditions accepted for the hostages' release; few details of the release are known More

Photogallery IS Attacks Send Thousands of Syrian Kurds Fleeing to Turkey

Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says more than 300 Kurdish fighters crossed into Syria from Turkey to defend a Kurdish area from attack by the Islamic militants More

Video Sierra Leone's Ebola Lockdown Continues

Thousands of health workers are going door to door in the West African country of 6 million, informing people of how to avoid Ebola, handing out soap More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Fears Ebola Outbreak ‘Beyond Our Capability to Contain’i
X
Jeff Seldin
September 20, 2014 10:28 PM
Each day brings with it new warnings about the deadly Ebola outbreak already blamed for killing more than 2,600 people across West Africa. And while countries and international organizations like the United Nations are starting to come through on promises of help for those most affected, the unprecedented speed with which the virus has spread is raising questions about the international response. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more from Washington.
Video

Video Fears Ebola Outbreak ‘Beyond Our Capability to Contain’

Each day brings with it new warnings about the deadly Ebola outbreak already blamed for killing more than 2,600 people across West Africa. And while countries and international organizations like the United Nations are starting to come through on promises of help for those most affected, the unprecedented speed with which the virus has spread is raising questions about the international response. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more from Washington.
Video

Video Iran, World Powers Seek Progress in Nuclear Talks

Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, known as the P5 + 1, have started a new round of talks on Iran's nuclear program. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports that as the negotiations take place in New York, a U.S. envoy is questioning Iran's commitment to peaceful nuclear activity.
Video

Video Obama Goes to UN With Islamic State, Ebola on Agenda

President Obama goes to the United Nations General Assembly to rally nations to support a coalition against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. He also will look for nations to back his plan to fight the Ebola virus in West Africa. As VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports, Obama’s efforts reflect new moves by the U.S. administration to take a leading role in addressing world crises.
Video

Video Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land Called Calais

The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching Europe. And for those forunate enough to reach a place like Calais, France, only find that their problems aren't over. Lisa Bryant has the story.
Video

Video Westgate Siege Anniversary Brings Back Painful Memories

One year after it happened, the survivors of the terror attack on Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall still cannot shake the images of that tragic incident. For VOA, Mohammed Yusuf tells the story of victims still waiting for the answer to the question 'how could this happen?'
Video

Video Militant Assault in Syria Displaces Thousands of Kurds

A major assault by Islamic State militants on Kurds in Syria has sent a wave of new refugees to the Turkish border, where they were stopped by Turkish border security. Turkey is already hosting about 700,000 Syrian refugees who fled the civil war between the government and the opposition. But the government in Ankara has a history of strained relations with Turkey's Kurdish minority. Zlatica Hoke reports Turkey is asking for international help.
Video

Video Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

The International Whaling Commission, meeting in Slovenia, has voted to uphold a court ruling banning Japan from hunting whales in the Antarctic Ocean. Conservationists hailed the ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Iraqi Kurdistan Church Helps Christian Children Cope find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil

In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth. Sebastian Meyer reports from Irbil on how one church is coping.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid