Skip to main content

Leakers and governments should work together

By Bruce Schneier, Special to CNN
November 6, 2013 -- Updated 1141 GMT (1941 HKT)
National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden poses with German Green party parliamentarian Hans-Christian Stroebele in Moscow on October 31. Stroebele returned from the meeting with a letter from Snowden to German authorities, which was distributed to the media. In it, Snowden said he is confident that with international support, the United States would abandon its efforts to "treat dissent as defection" and "criminalize political speech with felony charges." National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden poses with German Green party parliamentarian Hans-Christian Stroebele in Moscow on October 31. Stroebele returned from the meeting with a letter from Snowden to German authorities, which was distributed to the media. In it, Snowden said he is confident that with international support, the United States would abandon its efforts to "treat dissent as defection" and "criminalize political speech with felony charges."
HIDE CAPTION
NSA leaker Edward Snowden
NSA leaker Edward Snowden
NSA leaker Edward Snowden
NSA leaker Edward Snowden
NSA leaker Edward Snowden
NSA leaker Edward Snowden
NSA leaker Edward Snowden
NSA leaker Edward Snowden
NSA leaker Edward Snowden
NSA leaker Edward Snowden
NSA leaker Edward Snowden
NSA leaker Edward Snowden
NSA leaker Edward Snowden
NSA leaker Edward Snowden
NSA leaker Edward Snowden
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bruce Schneier: In today's world, massive leaks of secrets should be expected
  • It may seem odd, but governments should negotiate with leakers, he says
  • Schneier: It's in everyone's interest to avoid unnecessary disclosure of secrets
  • Governments could negotiate what amounts to a plea bargain

Editor's note: Bruce Schneier is a security technologist and author of "Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust Society Needs to Thrive." He is working with Glenn Greenwald on analyzing the Snowden documents.

(CNN) -- In the Information Age, it's easier than ever to steal and publish data. Corporations and governments have to adjust to their secrets being exposed, regularly.

When massive amounts of government documents are leaked, journalists sift through them to determine which pieces of information are newsworthy, and confer with government agencies over what needs to be redacted.

Managing this reality is going to require that governments actively engage with members of the press who receive leaked secrets, helping them secure those secrets -- even while being unable to prevent them from publishing. It might seem abhorrent to help those who are seeking to bring your secrets to light, but it's the best way to ensure that the things that truly need to be secret remain secret, even as everything else becomes public.

Bruce Schneier
Bruce Schneier

The WikiLeaks cables serve as an excellent example of how a government should not deal with massive leaks of classified information.

WikiLeaks has said it asked U.S. authorities for help in determining what should be redacted before publication of documents, although some government officials have challenged that statement. WikiLeaks' media partners did redact many documents, but eventually all 250,000 unredacted cables were released to the world as a result of a mistake.

The damage was nowhere near as serious as government officials initially claimed, but it had been avoidable.

Snowden: I did world a public service
Edward Snowden: I'm no criminal

Fast-forward to today, and we have an even bigger trove of classified documents. What Edward Snowden took -- "exfiltrated" is the National Security Agency term -- dwarfs the State Department cables, and contains considerably more important secrets. But again, the U.S. government is doing nothing to prevent a massive data dump.

The government engages with the press on individual stories. The Guardian, The Washington Post, and The New York Times are all redacting the original Snowden documents based on discussions with the government. This isn't new. The U.S. press regularly consults with the government before publishing something that might be damaging. In 2006, The New York Times consulted with both the NSA and the Bush administration before publishing Mark Klein's whistle-blowing about the NSA's eavesdropping on AT&T trunk circuits. In all these cases, the goal is to minimize actual harm to U.S. security while ensuring the press can still report stories in the public interest, even if the government doesn't want it to.

In today's world of reduced secrecy, whistle-blowing as civil disobedience, and massive document exfiltrations, negotiations over individual stories aren't enough. The government needs to develop a protocol to actively help news organizations expose their secrets safely and responsibly.

Here's what should have happened as soon as Snowden's whistle-blowing became public. The government should have told the reporters and publications with the classified documents something like this: "OK, you have them. We know that we can't undo the leak. But please let us help. Let us help you secure the documents as you write your stories, and securely dispose of the documents when you're done."

The people who have access to the Snowden documents say they don't want them to be made public in their raw form or to get in the hands of rival governments. But accidents happen, and reporters are not trained in military secrecy practices.

Copies of some of the Snowden documents are being circulated to journalists and others. With each copy, each person, each day, there's a greater chance that, once again, someone will make a mistake and some -- or all -- of the raw documents will appear on the Internet. A formal system of working with whistle-blowers could prevent that.

I'm sure the suggestion sounds odious to a government that is actively engaging in a war on whistle-blowers, and that views Snowden as a criminal and the reporters writing these stories as "helping the terrorists." But it makes sense. Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain compares this to plea bargaining.

The police regularly negotiate lenient sentences or probation for confessed criminals in order to convict more important criminals. They make deals with all sorts of unsavory people, giving them benefits they don't deserve, because the result is a greater good.

In the Snowden case, an agreement would safeguard the most important of NSA's secrets from other nations' intelligence agencies. It would help ensure that the truly secret information not be exposed. It would protect U.S. interests.

Why would reporters agree to this? Two reasons. One, they actually do want these documents secured while they look for stories to publish. And two, it would be a public demonstration of that desire.

Why wouldn't the government just collect all the documents under the pretense of securing them and then delete them? For the same reason they don't renege on plea bargains: No one would trust them next time. And, of course, because smart reporters will probably keep encrypted backups under their own control.

We're nowhere near the point where this system could be put into practice, but it's worth thinking about how it could work. The government would need to establish a semi-independent group, called, say, a Leak Management unit, which could act as an intermediary. Since it would be isolated from the agencies that were the source of the leak, its officials would be less vested and -- this is important -- less angry over the leak. Over time, it would build a reputation, develop protocols that reporters could rely on. Leaks will be more common in the future, but they'll still be rare. Expecting each agency to develop expertise in this process is unrealistic.

If there were sufficient trust between the press and the government, this could work. And everyone would benefit.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bruce Schneier.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT