Living in America in the age of big leaks
On the very day that Roger Stone was charged with lying about a momentous set of leaks that originated with Russian hackers, a feisty band of transparency activists led by a Boston woman posted a voluminous collection of leaks from inside Russia.
It was less a coincidence than a trend, a consequence of technology and a defining feature of our time. We live in an age of leaks, for better or worse.
The better part is easy: We get access to information powerful people and institutions want to keep secret. The worse part is more complicated, and requires more thoughtful consideration than it gets: Leaks often violate laws against hacking or theft and invade people’s privacy, not always with any higher purpose. They can be powerful, unpredictable, unfair weapons. They can allow one country to meddle, from a safe distance, in the affairs of another.
To wit: The Democratic Party emails and documents, hacked by Russian intelligence and broadcast by WikiLeaks with the veteran political trickster Mr. Stone as cheerleader, may have allowed a foreign power to help elect an American president in 2016. Yet the new, sprawling archive of Russian leaks, ranging from government ties to the Russian Orthodox Church to the Kremlin’s management of its invasion of Ukraine, showed that the Russian state is a target of leaks these days as often as it is a leaker.
Mass leaks, on a scale inconceivable back in the paper-only era, have become so routine globally that only the most extraordinary get extended attention. In South Africa, a Commission of Inquiry Into State Capture is fueled by “Gupta Leaks,” leaked emails detailing corrupt ties between government officials and the Gupta family’s business empire. In Hungary, a Portuguese man was just arrested and admitted to playing a central role in “Football Leaks,” which exposed unsavory financial dealings in international soccer. In Singapore, an American and his Singaporean physician boyfriend were accused of leaking the names of more than 14,000 people with an H.I.V. diagnosis.
Leaks, an ancient metaphor, are a venerable human institution. “A talebearer revealeth secrets,” says Proverbs in an early complaint, “but he that is of a faithful spirit concealeth the matter.” Thomas Paine, the revolutionary pamphleteer, has been described as the first American to be fired for leaking classified information — in 1779.
But only in recent years have leaks attained industrial scale. A terabyte of data — 100 million pages or 1,000 hours of video — can now be slipped into your pocket on a thumb drive and carried off with your keys and chewing gum. If information is power, that is a lot of power in a small package. It is being wielded daily for many purposes.
The same technological change has made information vulnerable to hacking, which means that insiders are no longer the only people capable of leaking it. On a regular basis, companies announce cyberthefts of customer data, causing bureaucratic hassles for millions of people. At the other end of the scale, leaks occasionally target individuals for embarrassment or extortion.
But the most consequential leaks — many of them more like floods — are those that wield political power. The diplomatic cables Chelsea Manning gave to WikiLeaks in 2010 shed light on the hidden world of diplomacy. Edward Snowden’s National Security Agency documents, shared with journalists in 2013, prompted the White House, and then Congress, to set new limits on the surveillance of Americans. The Panama Papers, leaked to a German newspaper in 2015, prompted investigations of tax evasion and money laundering around the world.