By John Herrman
Posting in Architecture
The political fallout from Wikileaks' release of hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables will steal countless headlines over the coming weeks. But what about Siprnet, the secret government network that made these leaks possible?
It's difficult to grapple with the scope and scale of the recent leaks by whistleblower website Wikileaks. The batches of documents, be they ground reports from warzones or diplomats' dispatches from posts around the world, number in size in the hundreds of thousands. It's not just that these leaks are unusually massive, or that the immediacy of the internet has enhanced their impact; it's that these leaks would have been nearly impossible before the age of the internet.
Specifically, this week's leaks wouldn't have been possible without a little known government network called the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network, or Siprnet, meant to provide certain government employees with a sort of parallel internet; a secure communication system isolation from the greater web. Many of the diplomatic "cables"--which can describe anything from an electronic message to a transcription of a phone call--are marked with the telltale header of this network: "Sipdis."
In a summary written well before its wider proliferation in government, the Federation of American Scientists describes Siprnet as follows:
Its complete architecture will be achieved by constructing a new worldwide backbone router system. The primary method for secret-level network connectivity is via Base secret-level networks which in turn provide Base Router connectivity to SIPRNET. Various DOD router services and systems will migrate onto the SIPRNET backbone router network to serve the long-haul data transmission needs of the users.
The Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNET) has matured to be the core of our warfighting command and control capability. Many expeditionary commanders ask for SIPRNET ahead of secure voice when deploying their forces.
Since the attacks of September 11th and the subsequent restructuring of the American security apparatus, Siprnet has graduated from a niche military tool to an ad hoc network for communication between most of the government's intelligence agencies, according to the BBC. Documents shared on the network include materials classified up to and including "Secret", which isn't the government's highest level of classification--that honor falls to the legendary "Top Secret" classification--but which still encompasses data that "reasonably could be expected to cause serious damage to the national security."
One would expect that a modern government would have such a network, or at least some kind of effective means of transferring data digitally. It's 2010, and it'd be silly to expect our military leaders, civilian security employees and diplomats to do their dealings exclusively over the phone, or by letter. But two worrying things stand out about this network: its design and its size.
From a technological standpoint, Siprnet is impressive. It's a bit like a secure company intranet, spread throughout the world. Cracking the network from the outside is theoretically impossible, since it's physically isolated from the rest of the internet. Someone with full access to Siprnet, a bit of technical know how and a DVD burner or portable hard drive might be able to wreak havoc, but such a person is presumably rare, and besides, there are evidently some software safeguards against copying data to external storage devices.
But here's the thing: by some estimates, around 2.5 million military personel and civilians have access to the network. 2.5 million. That's roughly the same number of people as live in the state of Nevada, all of whom are being trusted with extremely sensitive information. (Though by design, not the entire network.) With that many potential sources, leaks are inevitable. No matter how secure the network is, some information will trickle out into the open, simply by virtue of having been seen by so many people.
Then again, 250,000+ documents can hardly be called a trickle. Siprnet has safeguards against this kind of mass dissemination (though they might not be universally implemented), and file access is monitored and logged. That latter safeguard is really just a deterrent, though; a person with the will to cause havoc by releasing documents might not care if he gets caught.
I fully suspect the source of these leaks to come to light, one way or another, and doubt his story will be particularly harrowing. Quite the contrary: it will probably be extremely, worryingly mundane.
Nov 29, 2010
If it wasn't PFC Bradley Manning it would have been someone else. All the posturing and puffing about Wikileaks is a large degree of messenger-shooting and butt-covering. The people in the dock should be those whose designs allowed this clusterf*** to occur in the first place and those whose lack of oversight allowed such a mess to be deployed. Instead they will be rewarded with promotions for the ones inside the military structure and even MORE US govt contracts for those outside it. Confidence inspiring?
riverat1, I think I already answered your question. I wrote: "...of course most homosexuals are loyal (and some have shown great valor -- Mark Bingham comes to mind). But it is undeniably true that a disproportionate percentage of particularly infamous traitors have been homosexuals: e.g., Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, William Vassall, William H. Martin, Bernon F. Mitchell, Lee Eugene Madsen, Jeffrey Carney, Lynne F. Stewart, and now PVC Bradley Manning."
waddyaknow, So are you saying all homosexuals (or even significantly more than in the heterosexual community) are traitors? My guess is the percentage of traitors are pretty similar in each community but I don't have any real research to base that on other than it seems to apply to other traits too.
Correction: one of the ten traitors, Wm Vassall, apparently WAS induced to commit treason by KGB blackmailers.
riverat1, (#12) That's probably true in some cases, but I don't think that any of the ten examples which I named were induced to treason by being blackmailed with the threat of being outed. Bradley Manning made no secret of his homosexuality, was not afraid of being outed, and was not blackmailed. He is proof that repealing DADT won't eliminate the security risks, since in his case DADT was being ignored anyhow. Enforcement of DADT would have prevented his treason and the Wikileaks disaster. Repeal of DADT would not have done so.
Mario, (#1) I'm with you on this. The more light shed on the subject the less rot there will be in our country. waddyaknow, (#10) Homosexuals can only be blackmailed over their homosexuality if they are afraid of being outed. If they are free to be open about it then it is not an issue.
Another problem which this disaster illustrates is that "Don't Ask Don't Tell" often isn't being enforced in the U.S. military. If it were, then PFC Bradley Manning, who apparently was quite open about his homosexuality, would not have been in a position to betray his country. The campaign to allow homosexuals to serve in the military is an example of politics trumping good policy. There are three camps on this issue: the "no way" camp, the "don't ask, don't tell" camp, and the liberals' "yes" camp. The military brass are almost all in the first two camps (which liberals think makes them all bigots). They usually point out the privacy issues caused by open homosexuals serving together with heterosexuals in tight quarters, but security is also a problem. Although most homosexuals would never betray their country, homosexuality is a known risk factor associated with security breaches. Some experts dispute that, and of course most homosexuals are loyal (and some have shown great valor -- Mark Bingham comes to mind). But it is undeniably true that a disproportionate percentage of particularly infamous traitors have been homosexuals: e.g., Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, William Vassall, William H. Martin, Bernon F. Mitchell, Lee Eugene Madsen, Jeffrey Carney, Lynne F. Stewart, and now PVC Bradley Manning.
Some of the first information on WikiLeaks from that PFC were posted in April 2010, yet he still sits in a Quantico prison waiting. He has not even been charged with a crime. Is this another case like KSM where no one wants to put him on trial because they are afraid of what he might say in court?
Even during the founding of this country, there were secrets that needed to be maintained and if you betrayed that trust you were hanged or shot. Without control of certain information, George Washington may have never become our first President, The Nazi's would have known enough about D-Day to convince Hitler to alter his defense of Europe, Iraq could have had our guidance systems on their SCUDs. How well would we be served as a nation to share information on all of the technological developments that our government has sponsored? Information is an area we have dominated as a country and it is a truly valuable commodity that should be protected. As for Diplomatic cables, how can diplomats give an honest assessment of their counterparts or certain situations if it's broadcast to everyone in the world? Do you wake up in the morning and tell your wife she's fat or share that commentary with someone other than your closest friend? There's a difference between whistle blowing and gossip. Wiki leaks was supposed to be a whistleblower site, but has instead gone after fame through gossip while putting peoples' lives at risk and setting back diplomatic efforts worldwide. On top of that, my guess is that these actions will result in more elaborate information control measures that will make it that much more difficult for actual whistle blowing to take place in the future.
The article was well-written and highly accurate. I'd suggest authorities to closely track the people who comment on it or tweet it.
comment #1, Mr. Mario, I salute you, you are so right. Mr. Bob Woodward (the one from Deep Throat that brought down Nixon) said the same thing in 1987 when interviewed on English TV. He said, "we have the right to know everything what a government does, a government is for the people". He also said in the same interview, "Governments have so much more that they keep secret, you can never leak enough". We, the People, are the government. The government is for us, not the other way around.
You are right about compartmentalization as a strong security measure for Top Secret information. The article states that the information on the Siprnet contains up to secret; the paragraph goes on to describe Top Secret in a confusing manner. It sounds like Siprnet is secure from the outside but poor security from the inside due to a lack of compartmentalization or even challenges to requesters. I would guess that there are disciplinary actions set for those who go beyond their normal duties and snoop through information. The State department tends to deal harshly with employees who snoop into people's data without authorization or a need for an assigned task; the curious tend to open up files about famous people even though there is nothing in their tasks that remotely needs this information. Unfortunately, the situation seems to be designed to let people have access to information that they should not have. I am not sure if Wikileaks is serving the whistle blowers or just grandstanding to the detriment of many governments. If banal files are leaked then this is not whistle blowing, this is closer to gossip.
Diplomacy has always depended upon a certain level of secrecy and confidentiality, and to think otherwise would be downright naive. In the least these leaks embarrass leaders and diplomats and likely also endanger trusted informants. It is irresponsible for wikileaks to make this material public. It's akin to the notion of "let's shoot them all and let God sort them out". I wonder if there were any documents that Assange thought not to publish because of the associated risks, or if he just put it all out there for his own personal aggrandizement?
Is there a term for this debacle? Naive idealism? Anarchy? Or was it deliberate malice? Hates Idiots is right. SIPRNET needs to be improved or replaced with something that supports compartmentalized access.
Up until the 1990s having top-secret clearance meant you could see the needed materials related to your job. It was called compartmentalization and it was a necessary part of any security plan. Why did a PFC in a combat zone have access to State Department internal communications? Those communications would have no impact on his job or the troops he provided intelligence for. I agree we need to share data between agencies to prevent another 9/11, but we do not need 1 million people with top-secret clearance to have access to all the same data. 1 million is the number given by a former DOD official on several news shows over the past few days. You could limit it to a few thousand people with access to everything and not impact operational cooperation between agencies.
Keeping state data secret from the very people it is suppose to benefit is a contradiction in both terms and logic and in fact is inanima in a democracy. If the action or behavior is such that it cannot be revealed then it probably should not have been taken.