The Evolution Of Stolen Secrets, From Tissue Boxes To Flash Drives

Photo courtesy of Wikileaks Mobile Information Collection Unit via Flickr, modified by Curiousmatic. 

The 21st century technology has amplified not only the amount, but also the impact, of classified information in the hands (or flash drives) of modern thieves and whistleblowers.

Reckless souls have managed to smuggle secrets as long as there have been secrets to steal:

  • In 1945, American communist Lona Cohen smuggled documents regarding the Manhattan Project in a tissue box.
  • In the 1980s, Jonathan Pollard spied on the US for Israel, smuggling scores of classified information in his briefcase or stuffed boxes.
  • In the 1990s, former FBI agent Robert Hanssen regularly filled garbage bags with classified documents to sell to Soviet intelligence. In 2001 he was arrested shortly after sealing a trash bag under a Virginia footbridge.
  • Between 2002 and 2003, Former NSA worker Sandy Berger removed and destroyed classified documents from the Clinton administration by smuggling them in a leather portfolio along with notes in his suit jacket.

What’s changed? Several things:

1. Death of the hard copy

As ex-NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden demonstrated in 2013, troves of information stored digitally can be lifted by trusted insiders, then released in volumes with or without traditional publication.

According to Business Insider, Snowden stole 1.7 million “soft copy” documents, all on a tiny flash drive as opposed to the tissue boxes and trash bags of yesterday’s spies. Only 1 percent of these have been published.

2. Rise of hacking

But theft isn’t limited to insiders: skilled hackers have also been shown capable of theft, demonstrated in 2014 when China infiltrated the US Military to steal and use its F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.

China-based hackers also stole the plans for Israel’s Iron Dome Defense system in 2011 and 2012.

In general, the amount of hacking and attacks on governments and institutions has risen significantly over the past decade: sevenfold since 2006.

[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”laUhxKnNFfLv8Q7ngbT0nKj3xz6eH1UR”]3. The power of WikiLeaks

The ability to directly publish information on the Internet has made floods of secret documents available on an enormous scale.

Edward Snowden chose to approach The Guardian and The Washington Post with his stolen information, but others like Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning have shirked the “official” middle man and went straight to WikiLeaks.

As an organization, WikiLeaks has no obligation or intent to preserve amiability with the government; its sole purpose is to encourage and spread leaks, no matter their content.

The organization is also credited with providing information that sparked protests and revolutions in Egypt and Tanzania.

The takeaway:

The 21st century may be viewed as a “Golden Age” for the theft of classified information, all enabled by technology, the Internet, and shifting public perception.

While hacking is wrong by most standards, officials also argue against whistleblower-style theft, claiming that it puts security at risk, having already done irreversible damage. Still, others claim it is a step toward better democracy.

We measure success by the understanding we deliver. If you could express it as a percentage, how much fresh understanding did we provide?
Jennifer Markert