Protecting state secrets has never been easy, but at least it used to be relatively simple. Once upon a time, you had a manila envelope, or a filing cabinet, or a “Top Secret”-stamped piece of paper that contained information you needed kept secure. As long as the people allowed to view that information were carefully vetted and trustworthy, the secrets could be kept pretty safe. Someone who wanted to see them would, ultimately, have to skulk into wherever you were keeping the physical paper that comprised the sensitive documents, and steal (or at least photograph) that paper. The difficulty and risk associated with doing this gave you certain obvious advantages in keeping your secrets under wraps.
Oh, for such care free times! In today’s digital age, just about everything is online – including sensitive state secrets. Certain national assets – such as the computers that control nuclear missile launch systems – are quite deliberately kept disconnected from all networks with no technical capability of becoming connected, but for the most part, keeping everything locally contained is either inherently impossible (some secrets concern the online tools used by government to conduct cyber espionage, as we’ll see in a moment) or would result in unacceptably inefficient operation. Everyone else in the world is connected, so if America wasn’t we would be at a disadvantage.
Unfortunately, this opens the door to computer hacking, both used against the United States as well as by the United States in its own essential espionage efforts. We already know about Edward Snowden, the disgraced former NSA employee who exposed reams of secret government documents detailing clandestine operations by the U.S., including surveillance of private citizens for counter terrorism efforts, and high level snooping on foreign officials. Snowden fled the country following his leak and is currently hiding in Russia, where he is wanted by the U.S. for treason but cannot be extradited from the country he’s in.
Most recently, Snowden has been talking about the hacking of The Equation Group, an entity which private company Kaspersky Labs found to possibly be a front for the NSA and their online cyber espionage activities. It seems that a certain faction was able to steal sensitive information from The Equation Group and is now advertising their willingness to sell it to the highest bidder.
Snowden says that “circumstantial evidence” and “conventional wisdom” suggest that The Shadow Brokers are actually Russian in origin, and that this hacking, because of the specific nature of the information they took, constitutes a warning from Russia that they can furnish proof of American involvement in certain cyber-attacks. In other words, if Snowden is right, the Russians hacked us, and their efforts produced sensitive information they can hold over our heads.
It remains to be seen whether Snowden knows what he’s talking about. It’s been a long time since he was trusted with any inside information, so the fact that he was right in his first leak has little impact now. But whether he’s to be believed about this specific incident or not, it illustrates an important reality about modern espionage. The days of James Bond personally infiltrating foreign installations to capture important pictures on microfilm are, if not over, at least on their way out, and it has been replaced by “24” subverting in a modern day espionage thriller. The best and easiest way to acquire state secrets is, and will continue to be, through online spying done by hackers from the safety of their home country. It’s time to adapt to this new arena of intelligence, because those nations who are already doing it will be at a clear advantage in a conspiracy driven, heavily virtual future.