How Technology Makes More Leaks Inevitable

This week’s massive game of “Where In The World Is Edward Snowden?” may soon be a common occurrence, thanks to new technologies that make more leaks and more leak prosecutions virtually inevitable. Snowden is the eighth person the Obama administration has pursued for leaking information under the Espionage Act of 1917 — more than double the number charged by all previous administrations combined — and it is likely that America is on an unstoppable trajectory towards more and more leak prosecutions in future presidencies.

Certainly, the sheer increase in the amount of potentially leakable data is a part of this conversation: According to IBM, the world creates 2.5 quintillion bytes of data everyday and that pace means that ninety percent of the data that has ever existed was created within the last two years. And governments are adapting to this new reality.

Thanks to Snowden’s leaks, we now know that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been siphoning up call records and sniffing through internet data. And according to one 2007 Department of Defense report, the Pentagon is trying to expand its worldwide communications network to handle yottabytes of data with the Utah NSA data center being key to achieving that goal. A yottabyte is equal to about 500,000,000,000,000,000,000 pages of text. Yes, that is the correct number of zeros.

As a result of the expansion of the national security apparatus in general and the amount of intelligence that apparatus must sift through, there are now more than 4.9 million people with security clearance. That includes roughly 483,000 contractors with top secret clearance, like Snowden. Indirectly, this means that the expansion of government surveillance operations and the technological innovations driving that expansion have led to more and more people having access to the kind of documents that could result in a major intelligence leak.


Similarly, with digital storage it’s no longer a matter of sneaking out folders or filing cabinets worth of documents to expose a full extent of a program with national security and civil liberty implications. Now you just need a flash drive — or in the alleged case of Bradley Manning, a disc that appears to be a burnt Lady Gaga CD.

And services like Wikileaks, the group allegedly used by Bradley Manning to release a vast treasure trove of sensitive content would not exist or have the same impact without the communications capabilities of the internet. Plus, being able to upload documents to an anonymous tool like the New Yorker’s strongbox, while onerous, is certainly different beast than meeting in a dark parking garage.

But, as the NSA leaks themselves ironically show, surveillance tech also means it’s easier than ever to track down and prosecute those initiating the leaks. Access to digital documents are often tracked via auditing system that can be quickly searched to narrow down suspects — and if that doesn’t pinpoint the person, the government can use wiretapping laws to snoop on the communications of the reporters who broke the story.

Indeed, one of the reasons Snowden supposedly outed himself was that he considered exposure inevitable. Sure, technology also enables a number of ways to avoid that detection, but many require a lot of extra effort and a fair amount of technological know-how.

Regardless of your opinion on the value of the information released via leaks over the past several years or by Snowden in particular, the current trajectory of the U.S.’s dependency on technology for national security purposes is more likely to make this kind of information sharing — and the persecution of those engaging in it — the rule rather than the exception.