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11/30/2010
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WikiLeaks Missives Contain Many Tech Secrets

The diplomatic cables include references to the alleged execution of an IT director in Iran, cybersecurity weaknesses in Brazil, and friction with Germany over information sharing.

The cache of more than 250,000 sensitive diplomatic cables acquired by WikiLeaks, only a fraction of which have been released, appear to contain many details on the technology and Internet policies, cybersecurity practices, and IT systems of the U.S. government and other countries.

InformationWeek’s analysis of the cables already released and of the subject headers of unreleased cables, along with media reports of unreleased cables showing evidence of Chinese involvement in cyber-attacks against Google, finds thousands of references to the role that technology plays in 21st Century diplomacy.

According to statistics provided by WikiLeaks, there are 9,329 cables about trade and technology controls, 2,553 about intellectual property rights, 574 about "economic and commercial Internet," and hundreds more on critical infrastructure protection, Internet technology, automated data processing, global IT modernization, and Internet administration. The U.S. government is vigorously opposed to the public release of the documents, many of which are confidential or secret in nature.

In one cable, a Brazilian general expresses concern that his country's government is falling behind in protecting its classified and unclassified computer systems. He welcomes American assistance in helping to secure them, recommending the possibility of "courses" and "visits" to ameliorate the problem.

In another, a supporter of failed Iranian presidential candidate and opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi claims that the director of IT for the nation's election supervision office was arrested by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and executed after his electronic tabulation of vote results showed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad coming in third in the country's 2009 presidential election.

Separately, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah suggests that microchips be implanted in Guantanamo Bay detainees as a way of tracking their movements via Bluetooth. Abdullah noted that horses and falcons have been tracked wirelessly. In response, White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan is quoted as saying that "horses don't have good lawyers,” a reference to the legal hurdles that any such plan would face. From a technical perspective, the idea was fundamentally flawed anyway, because Bluetooth doesn’t work over long distances.

In another series of cables, including one titled "Data Privacy Trumps Security," State Department officials express concern that a party in Germany's leadership coalition, the Free Democratic Party, is fixated on data privacy and hadn't formed "responsible views on security policy" at a time when terrorists are using the Internet to recruit, train and organize. Germany has some of the strongest privacy laws in the world. The missives hint that the FDP's views could hold back information sharing between the two countries.

"In our meetings we have made the point that countering terrorism in a globalized world, where terrorists and their supporters use open borders and information technology to quickly move people and financing, requires robust information sharing," the U.S. embassy in Berlin says in one cable. "We need to also demonstrate that the U.S. has strong data privacy measures in place so that robust data sharing comes with robust data protections."

One of the most serious allegations to surface -- though the supporting cables are not yet available on WikiLeaks -- is that a senior Chinese political leader ordered a cyber-attack on Google last year after he typed his name into the search engine and found articles criticizing him. Publicly, U.S. government officials haven't accused Chinese government officials of being involved in the system breach.

Other cables are more mundane, but contain many references to the role of technology in a wide range of social issues. In one cable, the State Department sought details on Bulgarian efforts to combat cybercrime, while in another it noted that Internet access in Saudi Arabia was driving "new forms of social activism,” such as a spontaneous disaster relief effort after a flood.

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