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1/9/2011
06:14 AM
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Anonymity And Nonversations

One sure result of the whole Wikileaks thing is security researchers, whistleblowers, and government officials talking past each other.

The further the Wikileaks story develops, the more it propels almost every facet of the information security industry to the forefront.

First, there's the question of how all those cables (which is apparently what we're supposed to call emails when they're sent among diplomats) got leaked in the first place. We're led to believe it was a leak from the inside, but no one's really proven that case as yet. Bradley Manning may be in solitary confinement, but he's innocent until proven guilty, right?

Nowhere in popular media coverage of the event have I seen any questions raised about whether there was proper due care in protecting the data before it was leaked. Which raises the question of how we can know whether governments (and enterprises, I hasten to add) are handling sensitive data appropriately. It's sad that, as an industry, we don't have a convincing answer for this.

Short of a whistle-blower to point out negligence or a hack situation where the horse has already left the barn (certainly this is the case with regard to U.S. diplomatic communications), we don't have a good approach to give us any confidence.

For once, the public may get to do some serious thinking (and perhaps learning) about encryption, not so much because "cables" aren't encrypted (we're told that, at least in transit, they are), but rather owing to the infamous insurance.aes256 file that Wikileaks has posted, threatening to release the key if anything happens to Assange.

It could be that the file is a hoax, but I doubt it. My money is on it being a real set of "smoking gun" data that's actually encrypted using AES.

Meanwhile, the Denver Post reports that the U.S. Attorney's office in Alexandria, Va., has demanded details from Twitter about the accounts of Assange and Bradley Manning, along with several other users who've had associations with Wikileaks in the past.

This subpoena is just the latest lesson in "how not to do it." Where the government should be focusing on the issue of why a private first class had access to such a broad range of data and perhaps taking action against the idiot responsible for the security "architecture" that was supposed to protect this stuff, they are setting a precedent for violating the privacy of social media accounts whenever they want to go fishing for evidence. I say "fishing" somewhat advisedly, because I of course don't know what prompts them to want access to the accounts, but I'd suggest that if the attorney general doesn't have a better case than a few tweets, the attorney general probably doesn't have a case at all.

The administration should cool its heels with regard to prosecution. We should instead be having a policy discussion about when anonymity is appropriate (as, for instance, if a whistleblower needs to reveal legitimate evidence of, say, the commission of war crimes) and how it might be protected. We should be asking Assange and Wikileaks hard questions about why they aren't sharing any real smoking guns instead of airing diplomacy's peccadillos, if in fact the large body of cables contains any such proof.

Instead, the government is posturing, public figures on the right are making threats of physical violence against Assange that would certainly result in prosecution if the tables were turned, and the justice system has been mobilized to prove to citizens that they have no expectation of privacy online if the government takes an interest in them.

People who are concerned about online privacy will resort to more encryption, better Tor networks, and other sorts of technological approaches. The government appears intent to shoot the messenger whenever trouble arises as a result. And what will result will be a textbook nonversation. Does that seem like the right way to go?

Robert Richardson directs content and programs at the Computer Security Institute.

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