As the story emerges about how Wikileaks’ US diplomatic cables came to be available in an unredacted, unencrypted form this week, potentially harming the safety of many informants and other vulnerable people, one obvious lesson is again in evidence:
People are the weakest link in any encryption system.
The potential for human error is constant and unswerving, and so the odds were always that eventually, somehow, somebody would screw up — even somebody as security obsessed as Julian Assange was not exempt. It’s a common cliché to posit that “information wants to be free”; perhaps it is more accurate to say that for information, being encrypted is an unstable state — either the password is soon forgotten or taken to the grave and the information disappears from the universe, or else some blunder eventually allows it to escape to the world at large. For information, in the long run, it’s more “Live free or die”; there is no stable intermediate state. Conspiracies are short-lived at best because humans are fallible; those Knights Templar successfully defending the Holy Grail across the millennia exist only in bad fantasy fiction.
The 500MB BitTorrent file that contains all the cables unzips to around 60GB of HTML files — my computer’s been at it for over 8 hours and counting. I can’t not rifle through this trove now that it is in the wild, of course. Previously, I was frustrated that I couldn’t just do text searches on all the content for my own ad hoc investigative reporting, although I understood and approved of the reason why. Now that this information is in the open, we can’t just let those with nefarious motives read them — we all need to read up, so that there is some hope for a silver lining. (If I find anything relevant to Dliberation’s remit, I’ll blog it of course.)
It looks like we will after all have to adjust to living in a global society where radical transparency is an expected outcome, whether from customer database leaks or whistleblower actions. For a while, as The Guardian and others released redacted versions of the cables, we thought Pandora’s box could be opened just a sliver. We were wrong.