The Declining Half-Life of Secrets

The Declining Half-Life of Secrets And the Future of Signals Intelligence by Peter Swire.

Peter Swire writes:

The nature of secrets is changing. The “half-life of secrets” is declining sharply for many signals intelligence and other intelligence activities as secrets that may have been kept successfully for 25 years or more are exposed well before.

For evidence, one need look no further than the 2015 breach at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), of personnel records for 22 million U.S. government employees and family members. For spy agencies, theft of the security clearance records is uniquely painful – whoever gains access to the breached files will have an unparalleled ability to profile individuals in the intelligence community and subject them to identity theft.

OPM is just one instance in a long string of high-profile breaches, where hackers gain access to personal information, trade secrets, or classified government material. The focus of the discussion here, though, is on complementary trends in information technology, including the continuing effects of Moore’s Law, the sociology of the information technology community, and changed sources and methods for signals intelligence. This article is about those risks of discovery and how the intelligence community must respond.

My views on this subject were formed during my experience as one of five members of President Obama’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology in 2013. There is a crucial difference between learning about a wiretap on the German Chancellor from three decades ago and learning that a wiretap has targeted the Current German Chancellor, Angela
Merkel, while she is still in office and able to object effectively. In government circles, this alertness to negative consequences is sometimes called “the front-page test,” which describes how our actions will look if they appear on the front page of the newspaper. The front-page test becomes far more important to decision-makers when secrets become known sooner. Even if the secret operation is initially successful, the expected costs of disclosure become higher as the
average time to disclosure decreases.

Peter generously attributes secrecy in the intelligence community to fear of “mosaic theory,” that is that an opponent may be gathering any and all information in an effort to indirectly discover what it cannot discover directly.

While application of “mosaic theory” to an intelligence agency isn’t impossible, revelations from the Pentagon Papers to date have shown criminal misconduct, concealing incompetence, career protection, and a host of other unsavory motives are at least as likely as application of “mosaic theory.”

The intelligence community should recognize secrecy for the sake of concealing criminal misconduct, incompetence, career protection, etc., weakens its claim for protection of legitimate secrets.

Only the intelligence community can clean its own house. The alternative is random disclosure of secrets of varying importance.


This is the first paper of the Cybersecurity Intitiative.

From their about page:

There is perhaps no issue that has grown more important, more rapidly, on so many different levels, than cybersecurity. It affects personal privacy, business prosperity and the wider economy, as well as national security and international relations. It is a field that matters for everything from human rights and corporate profits to fundamental issues of war and peace. And with the rapid growth in both the number of people and devices coming online across the globe, the security of information systems is only going to grow in importance. Yet, while ever more amounts are spent each year, our collective understanding of the problem remains immature and both public policy and private sector efforts have failed to match the scale or complexity of this challenge for us all. The Internet has connected us, but the policies and debates that surround the security of our networks are too often disconnected, disjoint, and stuck in an unsuccessful status quo.

This is what New America’s Cybersecurity Initiative is designed to address. We believe that it takes a wider network to face the network of diverse security issues. Success in this endeavor will require collaboration – across organizations, issue areas, professional fields and business sectors, as well as local, state, and international borders. By highlighting bold new ideas, bringing in new voices with fresh perspectives, breaking down issue and organizational barriers while building up a new field of study, encouraging new research approaches to the next generation of cybersecurity issues, connecting and creating new constituencies, and providing vibrant media and policy platforms to support that creativity, we can aid in pushing forward the cyber policy needed right now and better set us up for success tomorrow.

Prior attempts at cybersecurity have failed. (full stop) Can you guess what the outcome will be from repeating old ideas?

Follow the Cybersecurity Initiative if you want new ideas.

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