Thinking Tech

The secret government computer network that made Wikileaks' cable release possible

The secret government computer network that made Wikileaks' cable release possible

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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.

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John Herrman

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Herrman is a freelance writer based in New York City. He is also contributing editor at Gizmodo. He holds a degree from the University of Edinburgh. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure