Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Learnable lessons from Manning, Snowden and inevitable others 2 – understanding what barn doors you are locking after the horse has escaped 2

Posted in business and convergent technologies, in the News by Timothy Platt on August 16, 2013

I recently wrote a posting to this blog: John Peter Zenger, Henry L. Stimson, Edward J. Snowden and the challenge of free speech in which I began at least my contribution to an already ongoing and heated discussion. Take your pick; I either began writing about whistle blowers who shed the light of public scrutiny in places that need that, or I wrote of trust breakers who have leaked confidential information and regardless of consequences, or both. My inclination is to go with “both” and note in that regard that there is a significant gray area separating “clearly a whistle blower and good”, from “self-serving and damaging leaker and a lot less so.”

I followed that with a second posting that this one, by its title is a more direct continuation of: Learnable lessons from Manning, Snowden and inevitable others 1 – understanding what barn doors you are locking after the horse has escaped 1 and I continue that here, writing this on July 13, 2013 and with both the Manning and Snowden news stories still actively developing. The details are sure to change between when I write this and when it goes live, but the news stories themselves and their aftermaths in lessons learned and lesson opportunities lost will continue on for a long time to come.

I wrote in that second posting about Manning and Snowden and their work positions, and about the levels and types of classified information access that they had. And I wrote of what their security breaches say about the fundamental institutional approach to security that they worked in, and of the fundamental gaps in the security systems that they worked within too. The public acknowledgment of that by the government, as the US government pursues action against these two now-former employees, I content, might very well have caused more direct harm than their leaks and releases themselves have. But my focus here for this posting is not on that. My goal here is simply to openly think out loud again, as it were, about the leaks and those secure information releases themselves. And my goal here is to write about the danger of overly restrictive blinders.

I keep coming back in my thinking of this to opportunities lost leading up to the September 11, 2001 attacks launched by al-Qaeda. In retrospect, the US government almost certainly did have sufficient information in hand that if they had been able to bring it together, they might have seen those attacks coming. In principle, they might have even prevented them. But the intelligence reports and their contents that would have been required for that were separated from each other as if widely dispersed pieces to a jigsaw puzzle – and one that no one in advance would even know belong to any one puzzle in the first place. Individually, all of that information was coming in through different channels and it was coming in from a wide diversity of sources and going to separate agencies and all of it was arriving in a flood of other and unrelated data, and with essentially all of that unvetted for accuracy or reliability. So in practice, it would have been impossible to put this developing story together in advance and with enough compelling justification to prevent anything.

I wrote in my Part 1 posting to this now 2 part series, that the US government was going to more widely implement a two-man rule for controlling information access. That means, if actually and effectively implemented, that no one person will be able to coordinately look at what might be parts to some same puzzle unless they already explicitly know that they at least most likely do fit together, and significantly to national security and unless they can make a case that they do. The entire United States Department of Homeland Security was created, bringing all of those separate and disparate national security and intelligence-oriented groups and agencies under one roof and one mandate, to at least try to limit the types of disconnects from recurring that led to 9/11 and its attacks. As an example of the law of unexpected consequences, responses to limit leaks coming out of the Manning and Snowden incidents might very well undo much of the effort made when assembling Homeland Security in the first place – and as a piece of irony before the new Freedom Tower at the old World Trade Center can even be completed.

I am going to conclude this series installment for now but will return to this general topic area in a next installment where I will at least begin discussing possible lessons learned and alternatives to PRISM. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time 2 and in my first Ubiquitous Computing and Communications directory page. I am also listing this under my In the News posting category.


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