With the Guardian reporting that is has some 3,000 emails of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, it shows once again how difficult it will for governments, corporations and world leaders to keep secrets in the digital age.
This didn’t start with WikiLeaks, and it won’t end with the group either. Digital information is too easy to copy, and most of us, whether you or me or leaders like Assad don’t take our security as seriously as we should.
Before the digital age, a lot of these secrets were stored on paper. You had to have physical access to copy and smuggle them out of their vaults.
Now, highly secret information is leaking out into the open, whether it comes via compromised email accounts, as in the case of Assad, or whether it is smuggled out on a bogus Lady Gaga CD as US serviceman Bradley Manning is alleged to have to have done with 150,000 US State Department cables.
With respect to the thousands of emails of Bashar al-Assad and his British-born wife Asma, the leak came from a young government worker who handed the account details to a friend in March of last year, according to the Guardian, which detailed how the emails were obtained.
The fact that Assad’s email details were leaked isn’t to say that Assad was completely oblivious to his security. Activists said they had to monitor the account closely before the emails were deleted. The Guardian wrote:
“Deleting emails as soon as they arrive shows a degree of awareness of web security. So too did the fact that Assad never attached his name or initials to any of the emails he sent. However, many of the emails that arrived in his inbox are addressed to him as president and contain intimate details of events and discussions that were not known outside of the inner sanctum and would have been very difficult to manipulate.”
Is secrecy possible in the digital age?
It raises the question of whether governments can ever plug the leaks now made possible in the digital age.
In the wake of the massive leaks to WikiLeaks of not only the US State Department cables but also information from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US reversed some of the internal information sharing it had instituted after the 11 September 2001 attacks.
The US had believed that information silos had prevented it from connecting the dots of information that would have enabled it to anticipate and thwart the attacks.
The US military and intelligence agencies clamped down on the use of memory sticks and recordable CDs after the WikiLeaks leak, but that is only one hole to plug.
Even WikiLeaks can’t keep its leaks secret, as the entire file of US State Department cables, leaked out onto the Internet and was then decrypted after the group’s one-time collaborator, The Guardian, published the password for the file, mistakenly thinking that the password was no longer valid.
It shows just how difficult it is to keep secrets in the digital age. Governments can’t completely guarantee that secrets will remain secret. WikiLeaks’ leader Julian Assange has lost control of his treasure trove of secrets, and now the embattled Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has had not only his wife’s luxury shopping list revealed but also secrets about his dealings with Iran.
Secrets have always been difficult to keep, but in the digital age even more so. If our governments can’t keep secrets, do we just assume that something will become public or do we try harder to plug the holes? If we assume that everything might become public, how does that change the way governments, corporations and even individuals conduct themselves?