An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Our signal in Bonners Ferry and Omak is seriously impaired due to weather— Learn more here.

Secrets Just As Hard To Maintain As Privacy In Digital Age

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The recent leaks of classified documents about government surveillance have raised a lot of questions about the loss of privacy. And experts will tell you there is another casualty: Secrecy. Classified documents used to be kept in a safe and read by a select few who couldn't take them from the room.

Now, many a top-secret document can be accessed by hundreds, if not thousands of people, creating a security nightmare as NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports.

Stealing classified documents used to be decidedly low tech. Just think about ex-communist Whittaker Chambers. He accused State Department employee Alger Hiss of spying for the Soviet Union. This is Chambers' testimony about Hiss before the House Committee on Unamerican Activities in 1947.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: The damning evidence in that case was a small piece of microfilm Chambers had stored in a hollowed out pumpkin.

JOEL BRENNER: We're a long way from that now.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Joel Brenner. He worked at the National Security Agency. He was the inspector general there.

BRENNER: You can walk out of a building with a Zip drive or a USB stick on the end of your keychain with all of the information that's in that building and walk right out without sweating a bit or anybody noticing what you're doing. That's a very different world we're in.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That may be what happened in this latest case involving a former NSA contractor named Edward Snowden. Here he is speaking to The Guardian newspaper.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: When you're in positions of privileged access, like a systems administrator for these sort of intelligence community agencies, you're exposed to a lot more information on a broader scale than the average employee.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And that gets to a key point. It isn't just more difficult to maintain privacy in this new era, Brenner says it's harder to keep secrets, too.

BRENNER: The public thinks that privacy and secrecy are somehow different and that privacy's gone through the floor while secrecy's gone through the roof. And the truth is, they've both gone through the floor. They're both in the gutter and for the same set of technological and cultural reasons.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Culturally, we're sharing everything, where we're eating on FourSquare, who we're dating on Facebook. Technologically, all this sharing takes place on networks that aren't exactly secure and private citizens aren't the only ones using them.

BRENNER: Companies and governments use the same IT infrastructure to communicate as we do.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Joel Brenner, the former NSA official, says that's a problem if you're trying to keep secrets.

BRENNER: Organizations and governments are losing information in the same way that people are.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And just like in business, the government needs someone to keep their networks running. They need IT guys and those people are becoming very powerful. Investigators are looking at what Edward Snowden's administrator permissions gave him access to and which secrets he might have been able to retrieve.

BRENNER: You know, we call this stuff top secret, but if a thousand people have access to it, it may be called top secret, but there's some important sense in which it's not so secret anymore. You know, Ben Franklin had it right when he said three can keep a secret if two of them are dead.

TEMPLE-RASTON: U.S. officials say that Snowden, who appeared to be in Hong Kong just yesterday, has disappeared. Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian newspaper has promised more leaks to come. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.