Monday, November 29, 2010
Using Smokescreens and Spoofing to Undermine Wikileaks
The leaked diplomatic cables story already been much discussed and will be discussed further elsewhere. As a privacy law scholar, my starting point is to think of this problem as a data security issue and then wonder how Pfc. Bradley Manning evidently obtained access to such a large cache of highly sensitive information. I suspect that some (but not all) of that story will be told in the coming months. The government's failure to better safeguard sensitive national security information against someone in Manning's position is a genuine scandal, one that ought to prompt careful investigations into what went wrong and rapid data security improvements.
That said, we have seen from analyzing commercial data security breaches that breaches will inevitably occur. To that end, it may make sense for the government to supplement heightened data security measures by regularly leaking false (but plausible) intelligence to Wikileaks. The current controversy has generated great attention because the information exposed on Wikileaks is believe to be genuine. But if disclosures to Wikileaks are frequent and sorting between true and false leaks is difficult, then the damage resulting from inevitable disclosures of true information would be reduced. It might even make sense for the government to announce publicly that it will be leaking lots of false diplomatic cables going forward so that foreign governments are not unnerved by what they read on Wikileaks and in the press.
A version of this strategy - called spoofing - was used effectively by the recording industry to make illicit peer-to-peer file swapping less attractive.If users couldn't distinguish between real Kanye West mp3 files and garbled noises on Limewire, then they might get frustrated enough to switch to iTunes. Applications that fostered the swapping of unlicensed p2p files tried to combat spoofing through file rating systems, but these were also subject to gaming by spoofers. Similarly, a spoofing approach to national security leaks might lower the reliability of Wikileaks information enough to get people to stop paying so much attention to the content that is posted there. Recall the little boy who cried wolf too many times. Wikileaks could invest in trying to sort between legitimate and phony leaks, but doing so would be costly and time-consuming, and it might bring more of Wikileaks's contacts with the Bradley Mannings of the world into the open.
One question that arises is whether the government is doing this already. Corporations evidently engage in such behavior with some regularity. Indeed, using misdirection strategies against competitors may be part of the "reasonable precautions" that a firm ought to engage in to guard its trade secrets. Are there instances of the government leaking false documents to Wikileaks? If the government isn't engaging in those strategies, should it start doing so?
UPDATE: Not-so-great minds think alike.
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This has interesting affinities to both Posnerian and Sunsteinian approaches to security. A Glenn Greenwald column on Cass Sunstein said: "Note how similar Sunstein's proposal is to multiple, controversial stealth efforts by the Bush administration to secretly influence and shape our political debates. . . . Sunstein advocates that the Government's stealth infiltration should be accomplished by sending covert agents into "chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups." He also proposes that the Government make secret payments to so-called "independent" credible voices to bolster the Government's messaging (on the ground that those who don't believe government sources will be more inclined to listen to those who appear independent while secretly acting on behalf of the Government). This program would target those advocating false "conspiracy theories," which they define to mean: "an attempt to explain an event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who have also managed to conceal their role." "
Posted by: John Doe | Nov 29, 2010 7:40:20 PM
Lior, very interesting post. Reminded me of Gladwell's recent piece on Operation Mincemeat, not to mention Ethan Leib, er, Wallace Shawn's bit in the Princess Bride: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2010/05/10/100510crat_atlarge_gladwell
Posted by: Dan Markel | Nov 30, 2010 12:12:51 AM
As Winston Churchill famously put it in discussing much earlier disinformation campaigns: "In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies."
Posted by: Ray Campbell | Nov 30, 2010 12:39:36 AM
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