University of Southern California

Espionage 2.0: Protecting Human Intelligence Sources in the Digital Age

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Note by Kimberley A. Church
From Volume 85, Number 4 (May, 2012)

On November 28, 2010, the international whistleblower website WikiLeaks and five major newspapers began simultaneously publishing confidential diplomatic cables from 270 U.S. embassies around the world. The cables were originally obtained by WikiLeaks, which also posted the cables on its own website. Over 100,000 of the cables in WikiLeaks’ possession are classified, with 15,000 classified as “secret,” meaning their release could reasonably be expected to cause serious damage to the national security.

The cables can allegedly be traced back to a single source: Bradley Manning, a former U.S. Army intelligence analyst. Since the leak, the Pentagon has announced new measures to protect against similar breaches. Even with secure technology, however, so long as there are government secrets there will always be the risk of leaks–whether inadvertently, purposefully with good intentions, or purposefully with intent to harm the United States. Moreover, in the digital age, governments face a new threat: opportunities to publish leaked classified information have multiplied, as evidenced by so-called “internet drop-boxes,” which can post thousands of secret documents in only a matter of seconds for all the world to see. Never before has there been such a powerful tool for undermining government secrecy.

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