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When WikiLeaks burst onto the scene in 2006, the public views regarding governmental rule was forever altered. The site was a game-changer, creating newfound transparency toward political workings where there had previously been almost none. Operations and controversies once easily swept under the rug were suddenly a click away from concrete confirmation. Its founder, Julian Assange, was hailed as a hero of free information in some circles while vilified in others as a threatening, middling specter of secrets.
Fast forward a decade, and despite Assange’s legal issues abroad, WikiLeaks remains an online bastion for global transparency. Regardless of its seemingly noble mission, however, in recent months Assange has used WikiLeaks’ global stage to attempt to influence the United States presidential election–leaking damning Democratic National Committee emails detailing party favoritism of now-nominee Hillary Clinton. Assange has since promised more leaks before Election Day, leaks that will certainly aim to further besmirch Clinton in her quest for the White House.
A site with so much influence and willingness to publish un-redacted, classified information inevitably ushers in certain implications. The question is, how far reaching are they?
BTRtoday spoke with online security expert Hemu Nigam about the dangers of WikiLeaks, its impact on the American government, and how the United States can adapt to future cybersecurity threats.
BTRtoday (BTR): When exactly did WikiLeaks become a problem for the U.S. government?
Hemu Nigam (HN): When WikiLeaks first started, it was in essence disclosing information that the American government never looked at as classified information. It may have been private or something that was new for the American public. But the moment it started releasing top secret information or some type of classified information, then the American government was really paying attention.
BTR: Why wasn’t the government concerned before that?
HN: One of the things that happened in the origins of WikiLeaks was people were just sending information and they were publishing it. It was almost like what people do with reporters; sometimes they’ll send something and say, “you should be aware of this,” and they’ll be an unnamed source or refuse to disclose their identity.
At some point people actually started disclosing classified information. When the government looks at classified information, it looks at it from the perspective of the dangers it could create, not only in diplomatic relations but human lives, because it could be connected to some undercover or spy operation they may be running.
BTR: Before WikiLeaks, how seriously did the American government take cybersecurity?
HN: Even after WikiLeaks it didn’t immediately change. The government has always talked about cybersecurity, but they’ve never really put in the resources to update their systems or to put the core concept of cybersecurity into their DNA. It’s been an afterthought. As we often say on the technology side, the technology moves at warp speed and the government simply moves. WikiLeaks highlighted the fact that there are major vulnerabilities in government systems, and there are people willing to exploit and disclose them.
BTR: Is the government’s inability to adapt quickly due to its bureaucratic nature or politician turnover?
HN: I think it’s a combination of everything. It’s not only funding requirements, but also the people you bring into the government are almost never as highly paid as the technology private sector, so you’re going to find people who are not as qualified to keep up with the world. That’s not a negative, it’s just the way the government is.
BTR: What is the solution to those conundrums presented by the intrinsic nature of government?
HN: I think what you have to do is really focus on two things. One is to do what hackers do. Hackers are hacking the government systems. The government should be looking at the private sector community of hackers, hiring them out, and saying “break into my system, tell me where my vulnerabilities are.” Every time there’s a change, every quarter they should do that in the systems that house the most important information.
BTR: What are some of the biggest dangers WikiLeaks and similar entities pose?
HN: I think the biggest danger, and one that I don’t think people are keenly aware of, is the fact that some of this information can cause an American solider, an American spy, a person engaged in counterintelligence activities, to get identified and killed. It’s pretty straightforward, but I don’t think people realize the significance of that.
What also happens is, governments who are watching continuously put pieces together. Every time WikiLeaks put something out, they’re putting their own analysts at it and saying “let’s figure out who is whom, what nicknames are where, what operation are they referring to.” And the more they can do that with more information coming towards them, then the more danger you’re creating for American counterintelligence activities.
BTR: Would you say WikiLeaks does more harm than good?
HN: WikiLeaks has done two things in parallel. One is, they’ve raised awareness in society. People now get to see the actual inner workings of the government and things behind the scenes, so that awareness has been raised. The population knows how the government actually operates instead of constantly speculating.
On the other hand, it’s also creating imminent danger to the lives of people who are out there protecting this country. And I think when you’re caught in that kind of a world, I would side with protecting human life rather than continuing to go forward in an effort to raise awareness.
BTR: WikiLeaks initially held the distinction of a watchdog, creating transparency around government operations. That’s taken a turn this year with the leak of the Democratic National Committee emails just before the party’s national convention. How has that leak shifted the view of WikiLeaks overall?
HN: It has shifted because I think there’s more of a personal vendetta going on here with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. When Hillary Clinton was out there around the world as secretary of state, she wanted people extradited, both Edward Snowden and Assange. Given that, I think this was in essence their payback: attack the DNC, find out what’s going on internally, try to disclose information to make her run for presidency look bad.
I think that’s what’s really going on here, which does tell us that organizations like WikiLeaks do have the ability to impact the political process.
BTR: What sort of threat does that pose to democracy, when an outside entity can use information to exert such influence over political elections?
HN: It puts everyone on guard a little bit, makes them more aware. If you’re doing something bad, you should expect it to be disclosed sooner or later. That should give you more reason not to do anything bad. In this case we had the issue of helping one candidate—Hillary Clinton–over another—Bernie Sanders–even though they were pretending to be neutral. That was something that should not have been done, and that got disclosed.
BTR: Does that clear political agenda somewhat discredit WikiLeaks’ original mission?
HN: Absolutely. It changes how to look at what they’re doing because now they’re looking at the motivation of the timing of the release, the information that’s being released. And for that matter, the opposite question also gets raised: what are you not releasing that could be helpful to the American public because it may not align with your vendetta or your political beliefs?