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
TEXT SIZE - +

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

Wikipedia Proves Useful for Tracking Flu

Technique gave better results than Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Google’s Flu Trends More

Turkish Law Gives Spy Agency Controversial Powers

Parliament approves legislation to bolster powers of intelligence service, which government claims is necessary to modernize and deal with new threats Turkey faces More

Video Face of American Farmer Changing

Average American farmer is now 58 years old, and farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population 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.
Face of American Farmer is Changingi
X
Mike Osborne
April 18, 2014
The average American farmer is now 58 years old, and farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population. It’s a troubling trend signaling big changes ahead for American agriculture as aging farmers retire. Reporter Mike Osborne says a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau is suggesting what some of those changes might look like... and why they might not be so troubling.
Video

Video Face of American Farmer is Changing

The average American farmer is now 58 years old, and farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population. It’s a troubling trend signaling big changes ahead for American agriculture as aging farmers retire. Reporter Mike Osborne says a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau is suggesting what some of those changes might look like... and why they might not be so troubling.
Video

Video Donetsk Governor: Ukraine Military Assault 'Delicate But Necessary'

Around a dozen state buildings in eastern Ukraine remain in the hands of pro-Russian protesters who are demanding a referendum on self-rule. The governor of the whole Donetsk region is among those forced out by the protesters. He spoke to VOA's Henry Ridgwell from his temporary new office in Donetsk city.
Video

Video Drones May Soon Send Data From High Seas

Drones are usually associated with unmanned flying vehicles, but autonomous watercraft are also becoming useful tools for jobs ranging from scientific exploration to law enforcement to searching for a missing airliner in the Indian Ocean. VOA’s George Putic reports on sea-faring drones.
Video

Video New Earth-Size Planet Found

Not too big, not too small. Not too hot, not too cold. A newly discovered planet looks just right for life as we know it, according to an international group of astronomers. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Copts in Diaspora Worry About Future in Egypt

Around 10 percent of Egypt’s population belong to the Coptic faith, making them the largest Christian minority in the Middle East. But they have become targets of violence since the revolution three years ago. With elections scheduled for May and the struggle between the Egyptian military and Islamists continuing, many Copts abroad are deeply worried about the future of their ancient church. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky visited a Coptic church outside Washington DC.
Video

Video Critics Say Venezuelan Protests Test Limits of Military's Support

During the two months of deadly anti-government protests that have rocked the oil-rich nation of Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro has accused the opposition of trying to initiate a coup. Though a small number of military officers have been arrested for allegedly plotting against the government, VOA’s Brian Padden reports the leadership of the armed forces continues to support the president, at least for now.
Video

Video More Millenials Unplug to Embrace Board Games

A big new trend in the U.S. toy industry has more consumers switching off their high-tech gadgets to play with classic toys, like board games. This is especially true among the so-called millenial generation - those born in the 1980's and 90's. Elizabeth Lee has more from an unusual café in Los Angeles, where the new trend is popular and business is booming.
Video

Video Google Buys Drone Company

In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
AppleAndroid