When news broke about an NSA leak it started some interesting water cooler discussions— questions of national security and responsibility, of the rights of press and freedom of speech, but of oaths of office, about state secrets and transparency.
It’s the first criminal charge filed in the investigation surrounding a Russian leak during the Trump administration, and it involves a 25-year-old in Georgia (the one just north of Florida, not the former Soviet country).
Back and Forth on Election Hacking
Prior to the November 2016 US presidential election, an enormous quantity of hacked material showed up on the website Wikileaks. Other sites showed up with leaked data as well. The Democratic National Conference, Hillary Clinton’s email accounts, even Republican General Colin Powell all got hacked in that short time frame around election season.
US agencies such as the FBI and NSA came stated that the hacker or hacking group responsible, Fancy Bear, had ties to the Russian government.
Vladimir Putin denied any Russian government involvement whatsoever.
On the heels of that debate comes an official NSA security report stating definitively that the US intelligence offices not only believe there was Russian involvement but specifically that the Russian military intelligence, the GRU, conducted the cyber attacks detailed in the document.
What Russia Did
So what’s the big deal? Don’t governments engage in this sort of intelligence warfare all the time? Press in the US has openly covered US cyber attacks against ISIS in Syria and other Middle Eastern locations. Russia and the US have been spying on each other since at least the Cold War. Even the Roman Empire engaged in state-sponsored espionage. This can’t be that different, right?
Well, as far as international espionage goes, this one does fall under a slightly different category. According to the leaked document, state-sponsored hackers targeted election equipment (both software and hardware), attempted to target voter registration with phishing attacks, and aimed all of that at US government organizations. These attacks seemed to undermine democracy itself.
Though the document does not conclude that such attacks were successful, it does not bode well for the future of Russian-US relations.
The online news source The Intercept is a new kind of media outlet, for a cynical digital age. Founded in 2014 by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar with the stated goal “to provide aggressive and independent adversarial journalism across a wide range of issues, from secrecy, criminal and civil justice abuses and civil liberties violations to media conduct, societal inequality and all forms of financial and political corruption.”
The Intercept publishes original source material whenever possible.
Though the name of the publisher was not released with the charges, young Air Force veteran and NSA contractor Reality Leigh Winner stands accused of printing out and mailing to a media organization a document containing state intelligence.
The media has long been called the “4th branch of government” for the role it plays, in a democratic society, in reporting and publishing issues of government. Freedom of speech is a fundamental right in the United States.
But when an individual decides to work for an agency like the NSA, certain oaths are taken that govern behavior.
Organizations of all kinds are grappling with issues of cyber security and responsibility. Who is responsible in the event of a data breach? In a field where security might be more important for operations, how are the people within that organization prepared, to maintain that security in an age of digital transparency?