Decoding Encryption: Weaponizing Leaks in Today’s MainstreamPhoto by Justin Sullivan/Getty Media Features Encryption
In what now seems to be a daily ritual—as routine as eating breakfast each morning—the continuing flow of leaks from inside the White House is one part ironic and one part disconcerting.
A quick glance at the president’s Twitter account at any given moment reveals just how loud the administration’s alarm bells are sounding. President Trump has promised to root out and silence “the leakers,” and has pinned the blame on liberal activists and even his predecessor, Barack Obama.
On March 4, Vice President Pence similarly lashed out at the Associated Press for posting his wife’s personal email address in one its stories, which Pence claimed put his family in danger.
The inability to stop such leaks has brought a halt to most of the administration’s agenda items, and with each passing day the ongoing backsliding, late-night retorts and cable news fodder have the president spending most of his time playing defense. The strain is beginning to show on congressional Republicans as well, draining the political capital they believe they have to act on a number of consequential reforms.
Undergirding this new media landscape—where news publications and online outlets are increasingly relying on leaks to shed light on the inner workings of what many believe to be full-scale collusion and corruption—is encryption.
Using Encryption as a Tool for Preventing Leaks—Or Not
While many pundits, politicos and Washington observers view the administration’s obsession with displacing the “mainstream media” and speaking directly to the people (read: Trump voters specifically) as a sort of paranoia, the real-world effects of demonizing the press have been damaging to say the least—to both Trump and the media itself.
One would think that encryption—the elaborate encoding of messages that makes text legible only to those who have the proper authorization—is the perfect method for communicating highly sensitive information—and it is. Data encryption is the foundation of electronic transmissions from high-level government officials (primarily within the NSA), and provides the intelligence community with a quick, secure way to transfer information without the prying eyes of those who would intend to intercept or decode important data.
Cryptography in general was operated almost solely by the government for many decades prior to the internet reaching the mainstream. But over time, the sheer amount of data transfers taking place and the public’s growing lack of trust in government operations (due to several overseas wars, financial crises and large-scale surveillance of private citizens), eventually elevated individual autonomy in tandem with the ubiquity of technology. Moving into the new millennium, private citizens now had access to their own forms of encrypted data and communication that no longer were accessible only by sophisticated government systems. This allowed individuals, and even government employees (Edward Snowden, for example), the ability to thwart government efforts of secrecy and leak potentially damaging information to other nations or publications.
Overarching fears of a surveillance state were then turned upside down—the state itself is now frantically worried about the public uncovering government secrets. Whereas encryption was once the tool of state actors, it is now a weapon for the press, which calls into question just how much should the public know about Trump’s administration and when does the line of national security become too dangerous to cross?
Fueling Leaks with Encrypted Apps
Encryption provides enormous benefits in terms of confidentiality, security clearances and management of traffic flow. But if critical information is withheld from media outlets, as is the case under the Trump administration, how is the press able to do its job?
One way is through the use of encryption itself. The New York Times, the Washington Post and host of other big-name publications are now soliciting anonymous tips from “leakers” through end-to-end encryption applications.
Jeff Larson of ProPublica categorized this new development as “a golden age of leaks.”
Apps like Signal, Confide and SecureDrop enable whistleblowers, government insiders and rogue officials to discreetly leak information without fear of retribution. These messages are protected from the moment they are conceived until they arrive in the inboxes of media outlets. As long as the information is not deemed a national security risk, the FBI is unable to identify or intimidate anonymous sources or the outlets that publish them. Under the Espionage Act, however, criminal prosecution of whistleblowers is very much an option.
This atmosphere has forced whistleblowers and media outlets into each other’s arms, which further incentivizes more leaks. Trump has revoked press passes from journalists who have been deemed anti-Trump; restricted his spokespeople from going on particular mainstream TV shows; and even claimed Obama wiretapped Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign—without adequate pushback on these measures, the administration is stuck in an echo chamber of its own design. And this certainly doesn’t help matters.
Press Secretary Sean Spicer has become so frustrated with leaks that he checks each of his staff member’s personal cell phones before they enter meetings to ensure none of them are using encrypted messaging apps. The reasoning that’s relayed to the public is that secret communications that can automatically delete upon receipt are in violation of the Presidential Records Act, which seeks to document all communique within the government. The more immediate reasoning, however, is that Spicer has been unable to prevent insubordination within his department, which is representative of nearly every other governmental department under today’s administration. But by taking such a combative stance against the media, the administration has essentially devised its own counterweight: Cracking down on leaks results in more leaks.
Perhaps labeling the very institutions tasked with broadcasting Trump’s victories and failures “the enemy of the American people” was not the wisest course of action on the president’s part; as it currently stands, there are few victories to speak of, leaks notwithstanding.