With the recent arrest of an Airman of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, the United States’ defence and intelligence establishments are once again under fire for apparently lax information security. In fact, this is the second time in less than a year that this has happened.
At first glance, this seems like a very bizarre thing…until you realize, sadly, that it is not.
In both cases, the leakers involved were not leaking classified intelligence – including casualty reports, battle plans, friendly agent identities, strategic concerns from and about allies, and technical intelligence, to name but a few – because they had been “honey trapped”. Likewise, the leakers were not employed by foreign state intelligence agencies, nor were they crusaders trying to expose crimes committed by the US defense and intelligence apparatus.
Instead, incredibly – or, sadly, not so incredibly – the leaks were the result of rabid video game players trying to prove how cool and ‘edgy’ they were.
While some of the leakers may be older, this is the result of the programming of the so-called “Generation Z”. This is the first generation to grow up with social media as a main facet of their lives. When “social media” as we would now recognize it, first arose in 1997, no one had any real idea of what its impact would be. Whatever the imagined intent, what it has evolved into, is a sort of electronic version of an elementary school playground at recess, with no adults present to regulate it.
Where older generations who entered the various defense and intelligence services would never, in their wildest nightmares, have taken classified materials to their local watering hole and deliberately passed them around to score social points, this is becoming increasingly common for a deliberately infantalized generation of youth. While there certainly were, and are, spies and informants stealing and passing on information for money, ideology or “love”, those reasons were at least tangible and understandable. Scoring social media points is, to be blunt, pointless in the extreme.
Coupled to the insanity of the RESTRICT Act (deliberately misconstrued as the “TikTok Ban” bill), this works to sweep away all the foundations of legality of the Rule of Law, in the fleeting hope of gaining some sort of security.
And, like the hysterical attacks from the music industry against services such as Napster and Grokster, idiocies like the RESTRICT Act are guaranteed to have exactly the opposite effect, as outraged online activists will find ways to send out increasingly large amounts of classified material – not for the older reasons, nor even the newer reasons, but simply out of anger at such tight restrictions. The fact of facing heavy penalties for doing so, are irrelevant once the information is “out in the wild,” as the saying goes: the damage will have already been done.
But the above does not address the real question: Why are these kinds of leaks so dangerous?
For those not familiar with intelligence gathering, as a discipline, the short answer is that, in the “old days,” obtaining intelligence – meaningful intelligence – on a hostile target was hard…very hard. An intelligence agency – from East or West – had to insert “non-official” (or “illegal”) agents into the target country; those illegal agents would then have to either infiltrate a facility, or suborn an intelligence worker (assuming that they could identify them). Conversely, they could hang out in bars, nightclubs or restaurants (good for staging a honey trap) outside the gates of military facilities, or take menial jobs at establishments outside the gates such as working as a barber or as a waitress, in an attempt to glean nuggets of information from random conversations…Not very flashy, and not very James Bond, but such methods did work.
(My favorite intelligence warning in the mid-1980’s, was an order that came down, telling service personnel to stop…”liberating”…large bottles of Tabasco® sauce from restaurants outside base main gates in preparation for going to the field or “rapidly redeploy strategically”, to make the early Meals-Ready-to-Eat (MRE’s) at least somewhat palatable. The problem had gotten so bad, those base-local restaurants developed their own internal intelligence networks, and were suddenly “out of Tabasco” when they learned of a local unit deployment…thus giving hostile agents a dead giveaway that large unit movements were afoot.)
With the rise of online gaming and their associated forums and chat servers in the early 2000’s, however, intelligence agencies quickly grasped that their agents could sit behind Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), in the comfort and security of their home nations. They could then “lurk,” monitoring boards silently, while not communicating very often, waiting to pounce on discussions where people who should know better would often drop bits – or entire files – of classified data…and those agents wouldn’t even have to hound the leaker, because the rest of the forum or chat group would do that for them, unwittingly.
This kind of thing came naturally to intelligence agencies, as it was a form of OSINT [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open-source_intelligence]. OSINT, or “Open-Source Intelligence,” is a method, or discipline [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_intelligence_gathering_disciplines] of intelligence collection where a person meticulously (some might say, “obsessively”) scours every publicly available source of information on a subject they can find, and attempt to collate and boil-down the resulting information into a general picture.
OSINT differs from more expensive, technological or hazardous methods of information collection – like finding human sources of information, satellite reconnaissance, radio signal interception, etc. – in that it simply requires an illegal agent to buy multiple piles of newspapers and magazines, and inhabit libraries relentlessly. While also not very flashy, OSINT analysis often leads to very clear pictures of a nation’s defense strategies. As well, it lends itself very well to crowdsourcing [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crowdsourcing].
So…Where does this leave us, in mid-April of 2023?
Unfortunately, there are serious problems within the information security apparatus in the West, as a whole. With the need to bring in a new generation of intelligence workers, the West – as opposed to Russia and Communist China – is finding that the “Woke” agenda that has been allowed free rein over the last decade has badly polluted the potential recruiting pool, as people who have been raised in a culture where ephemeral “electronic cred” is as important, if not more important, than being a “quiet professional”.
And, as those who promoted that social context are discovering, there is no putting the toothpaste back in the tube.