A leap in leaking information

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The World's Technology correspondent Clark Boyd looks at the way technology has changed the way sensitive military information is collected, and leaked.

MARCO WERMAN: The WikiLeaks case seems to suggest that classified data have never been so easy to collect and to disseminate. Technology likely played a role here. But as The World's Technology Correspondent Clark Boyd reports, it appears that the human element was the weakest link in the security chain.

CLARK BOYD: Let's go back to 1971. That's the year a series began appearing in the New York Times. The articles were based on a leaked government report on the Vietnam War called ?The Pentagon Papers.? The report was classified. It showed that the US government hadn't been entirely forthcoming in what it was telling the press, and the public, about the war in Vietnam. The leak was, by today's standards, pretty low tech.

JIM LEWIS: You had one fellow, Daniel Ellsberg, smuggling paper out of the building and giving it to a reporter.

BOYD: Jim Lewis directs the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He contrasts the Pentagon Papers with the WikiLeaks case.

LEWIS: The difference couldn't be clearer, in that you now have some unknown number of people who are able to contribute to a website that thousands or millions of people can look at right now.

BOYD: Technology has changed not only the speed that material can be leaked, but also the quantity. In the WikiLeaks case, some 91,000 documents are posted online. Military experts are understandably concerned. Colonel Richard Kemp is the former commander of British forces in Afghanistan.

RICHARD KEMP: There's very little that can be kept secret nowadays with the internet, with 24 hour media, and potentially it's damaging for our operation security and it does restrict what you can do. Now, I'm not saying that we've got to switch off the internet and go back to the dark days, but I just think it's something that military leaders have to be able to work around, and get through and find new ways of dealing with.

BOYD: But how to deal with it? The WikiLeaks case shows how difficult this can be. Pentagon suspicion for this leak is already centering on an Army specialist, Bradley Manning. Manning was based in Iraq. He's now under arrest. The Pentagon accuses him of giving WikiLeaks a classified military video showing a 2007 US helicopter strike on civilians in Iraq. WikiLeaks posted that video a few months ago. Jonathan Fildes is the editor for the BBC's technology website. He says that Manning's believed to have gotten the copy of the video off of an encrypted military computer, in a room with an access-code protected door.

JONATHAN FILDES: He was knocking on that door, so he didn't put in the code, someone would let him in, He would sit down at the computer, put a CD into the machine, and then would sing along, supposedly, to what he was listening to, and he wasn't actually listening to anything. And he would be downloading data to that CD, and then he'd stick it in his pocket, and walk straight out of it.

BOYD: The CD, some reports suggest, was labeled with the name Lady Gaga. Noah Schachtman runs the Danger Room military blog at Wired.com. He says that there are several weird things about this story, starting with the CD drives.

NOAH SCHACHTMAN: The computers that are attached to the top secret network aren't even supposed to have CD drives. They're supposed to have no drives so you can't take any information off of them. And if he or someone else didn't take that information off the [INDISCERNABLE], that network isn't supposed to be able to connect to the internet in any way. So the question is, how did he get the information off, or was there just a big information security breach?

BOYD: US government officials will now have to address that question, and try to find answers. Experts say that they'll revisit the process for getting, and keeping, a security clearance. They'll also look at better protections for military computer systems. But in the end, the technological solutions may not matter all that much. Again, Noah Schachtman.

SCHACHTMAN: If a disgruntled soldier decides that he's going to spill some secrets, it's pretty tough to stop him actually.

BOYD: WikiLeaks welcomes that. In a news conference yesterday, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said, ?Courage is contagious. Sources are encouraged by the opportunities that they see before them and step forward.? For the World, this is Clark Boyd.