Next step for Wikileaks: Crowdsourcing classified data

U.S. condemns publication, but its response to breach is uncertain

WASHINGTON - The release on Sunday by Wikileaks of more than 90,000 documents about military operations in Afghanistan may just be the start of problems for the U.S. government.

The online publication of the documents, which offer an inside -- and potentially embarrassing -- look at the war in Afghanistan between 2004 and the end of 2009, represent a failure by the U.S. to control its classified data from insider threat. And it throws open to the whole world a chance to crowdsource the information the documents contain.

With that in mind, Wikileaks' Editor-In-Chief Julian Assange on Monday urged intrepid researchers to cull the documents for information that the group -- and three publications given access to them -- have yet to uncover. Assange said that Excel, one of the formats in which the material was released, might be the best way to sort through it.

During a news conference that was webcast, he even guided would-be researchers, saying they could use a search term such as "children" to parse the data for casualty reports.

When mining the documents for information, it's important search for something "quite broad...," he said. "Don't tell the data what your prejudices are, but rather let the data tell you what it is."

Now that the secret data has been made public, Assange said he expects academics, students and computer programmers to "come in and do a better job than we have with this presentation."

The release of the documents drew a sharp response from James Jones, President Obama's National Security Advisor. In a statement, Jones said that the U.S. "strongly condemns the disclosure of classified information by individuals and organizations which could put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk, and threaten our national security."

Assange defended the release for the unfiltered picture it provides of the horrors of war. "The real story of this material is that it's war - it's one damn thing after another," he said.

At one point today, Wikileaks had 23,000 concurrent users downloading the trove of documents. At times, the main site appeared inaccessible, but a separate site set up by Wikileaks, the Afghan War Diary , appeared to be a doing a little better at keeping up with demand.

For the U.S and its information security policy, the document leaking "is quite a big deal, because it illustrates the extraordinary asymmetric power that a leaker can have -- especially when aided by an outfit like Wikileaks," said Steven Aftergood, who heads up the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.

A number of scenarios could emerge from the leak, said Aftergood. Government officials might decide that the documents are of "no great threat to national security" and that agencies should be less inclined to mark a document secret. Or the leak could lead to "growing impatience" over the government's broad classification restrictions.

Conversely, federal agencies might decide to tighten information security controls even more. "That might mean enhanced security measures, it might mean more detailed audit trails to determine who has access to certain kinds of records, and [it could mean] intensified investigations of leaks," said Aftergood.

Another possibility is that the government maintains the status quo, in which more data is classified -- and more of it eventually leaks, said Aftergood.

Jeff Addicott, director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, a center founded after 9/11, said the Wikileaks documents are part of a "propaganda war, and that's true in every war, but particularly in this war, because the media is watching almost every move that we make," he said.

The information is "going to be used by hostile forces to paint us as the aggressors," said Addicott.

The Wikileaks release has been compared to the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1970, when a secret review of the Vietnam War -- much of it at odds with what was publicly known about that conflict -- was published by the New York Times. North Vietnam "knew they couldn't defeat us on the battlefield, but their hope was that they could destroy the will of the American people to carry on the war, which they did," said Addicott.

The Obama administration probably hopes that this incident blows over quickly, but Addicott said that as the war drags on "these kinds of leaks are going to be even more devastating."

Jonathan Askin, associate professor of clinical law at the Brooklyn Law School, said sites such as Wikileaks, "that obliterate geo-political boundaries, should logically drive governments around the world to rethink the ways in which [they] control, conceal and distribute information.

"In the Internet-enabled digital world, information will find its way into the public arena, whether government likes it or not," said Askin. "Once governments recognize this inevitability, openness and transparency should logically become government's default approach to state information and national security.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com .

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