Skip to main content

Leakers and governments should work together

By Bruce Schneier, Special to CNN
updated 6:41 AM EST, Wed November 6, 2013
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
updated 9:42 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT