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

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Works to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Smithsonian senior research botanist Vicki Funk says ultimate goal is 'trying to get one-half of the diversity of plant life on Earth at the genus level in two years' More

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

Report from member of British think tank says Russian extradition requests keep targets from traveling More

US Lawmakers Weigh Turkish Anti-terror Moves

Turkey’s two-pronged campaign against Islamic State militants, Kurdish PKK forces provokes mixed reactions on Capitol Hill 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.
Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponentsi
X
Henry Ridgwell
July 28, 2015 9:53 PM
A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video Special Olympics Athletes Meet International Friends

The Special Olympics are underway in Los Angeles, California, with athletes from 165 countries participating in an event that gives people with intellectual disabilities the chance to take part in an international competition. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports that for athletes and their families, it's also an opportunity to make new friends in an international setting.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Iran Nuclear Pact Wins Few New US Congressional Backers

Later this week, President Barack Obama returns from a trip to Africa to confront a U.S. Congress roiled by the nuclear accord with Iran, an agreement that has received the blessing of the U.N. Security Council. Days of intensive lobbying and testimony by top administration officials have won few new congressional supporters of the pact. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Critics of Japan Defense Policy Focus on Okinawa

In Okinawa, many locals have long complained that Tokyo places an unfair burden on the tiny island by locating most of Japan's U.S. military bases there. As Japan's government moves toward strengthening and expanding the country's defense policies, opponents of those plans are joining local protesters in Okinawa, voicing concern about where the country is headed. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Okinawa.
Video

Video IS Uses Chemical Weapons in Syrian Attack

Islamic State militants have added a new weapon in their arsenal of fear: chemical weapons. VOA Kurdish service reporter Zana Omer was on the scene within hours of a recent attack in Hasakah, Syria, and has details of the subsequent investigation, in this report narrated by Miguel Amaya.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.

VOA Blogs