"The Declining Half-Life of Secrets"

Several times I’ve mentioned Peter Swire’s concept of “the declining half-life of secrets.” He’s finally written it up:

The nature of secrets is changing. Secrets that would once have survived the 25 or 50 year test of time are more and more prone to leaks. The declining half-life of secrets has implications for the intelligence community and other secretive agencies, as they must now wrestle with new challenges posed by the transformative power of information technology innovation as well as the changing methods and targets of intelligence collection.

Posted on September 3, 2015 at 8:43 AM31 Comments


Who? September 3, 2015 8:59 AM

It is a symmetric relationship. Now it is easier for government agencies and large corporations gathering information from citizens—at same time it is easier leaking information from these secretive organizations. Poetic justice.

Daniel September 3, 2015 10:22 AM

It’s not a concept I remain impressed by as it remains very much a temporary phenomenon. Secrets are a perpetual game of cat and mouse and due to slow reactions to change there are always going to be historical time periods when the cat has the advantage over the mouse or vice versa. The window and the keyhole were once supposed to signal the doom of secrets too…that didn’t happen.

Grand masters of chess think many moves ahead and here we have supposedly smart people claiming that the board never changes because their opponent never moves. O vey!

Required name September 3, 2015 11:02 AM

Seems like intelligence agencies have the same problem as the military in general – always fighting (or preparing to fight) the last war. Large bureaucracies are slow to change, so no surprise that some leaks have happened with the change in landscape since the collapse of the Soviet block.

Bob S. September 3, 2015 11:13 AM

As more people who know the secrets, the more likely they will be found out.

That’s true in the intelligence business. These days there are thousands and thousands of people with access to major secrets, each person having a personal opinion about them.

It all adds up to the cat getting out of the bag sooner than later.

K. Alexander had a feel for the problem. One of his responses to the Snowden revelations was to decimate the ranks of NSA sysadmins. Was it group punishment? To improve security? Vent anger? All of the above?

The more government entitles itself to secrets, the more the people have a totalitarian government.

Anura September 3, 2015 11:38 AM

The problem is that there are just too many secrets to keep reasonable control over them. The CIA is the kind of organization that would put a newspaper clipping in an envelope and stamp “Confidential” on the outside. Within the government, there are secrets that are important to national security, there are secrets important to criminal investigations and military operations, there are secrets that are important only to protect against embarrassment, and there are secrets that exists only as a matter of habit. The last two cases probably make up the vast majority of secrets in existence, but should not be secrets at all.

If you want to protect important secrets, don’t classify all of the stupid crap, and declassify the rest when it is no longer of importance. Then it becomes a lot easier to put tight controls over the fraction of the secrets that do remain.

EvilKiru September 3, 2015 12:19 PM

The problem isn’t just that there are too many secrets to keep. A large part of the problem is the urge to classify everything as secret for Cover Your Ass or Job Keeping purposes instead of only classifying stuff that actually needs to be secret.

Santorini September 3, 2015 12:43 PM

On-line. I’m surprised that no one has mentioned the primary driver of decreasing half-life is the fact that data is now on-line, therefore vulnerable and subject to mass collection and dispersal. If information were still stored on paper, it would be dramatically harder to obtain for leaking (think: guards with guns). Since the target information is computerized, one can readily copy massive amounts of information leaving few footprints, then easily disperse that information. A thumb-drive has replaced a 747 full of paper. If the hosting systems were more secure, it would help alleviate the leakage, but we have 20 years of experience to show that “security” is hard or not sufficiently valued. I submit that going on-line has significantly and permanently shifted the balance between cat and mouse.

David September 3, 2015 12:44 PM

So let’s not classify anything for long, including the identities and the real personal information of everyone in the US intell field because it is not going to matter to ME, it is not going to hurt my career when it all gets exposed to the Chinese, who are laughing their asses off (Thank you Office of Personnel Mangagement, OPM. Thank you to all of those who failed in this for the worst counter-intell disaster in US history.)

Let’s only classify everything for 5 minutes because Beijing already has it. But we have inclusion and sexual harassment prevention just like before 9-11, a stunning success.

jonathan September 3, 2015 12:59 PM


Yes, the discarded Thinthread
would (IMO) be less likely to inspire a leak about its existence than the methods the NSA went with instead.

the NSA choosing Trailblazer over Thinthread reminds me of the business world often making decisions that are bad for the long term because they are obsessed with the next quarter or next year’s returns.

Binney was not some startup libertarian culture leaker, he valued secrecy but, like James Comey
Binney also believed in the rule of law and limits on surveillance on the public at large.

If the intelligence agencies selected more Thinthreads over Trailblazers would fewer people’s consciences lead them to leak? I think yes.

Developers League September 3, 2015 1:38 PM

Yes , The intelligence agencies are doing their best to invade our privacy with security firms . Like we recently heard of The Hacking Team was hacked and we all know what kind of data came out.

Clive Robinson September 3, 2015 1:40 PM

@ Anura,

tThe last two cases probably make up the vast majority of secrets in existence, but should not be secrets at all.

You missed another group in there…

Which are non clasifed documents that you then subsequently classify, often at secret or above.

You then accuse someone who received it befor it got classified –and had treated it as not even confidential– of mishandeling classified information.

It’s a dirty little trick that has been pulled on various people over the years who by and large have not been able to defend themselves and thus get hurt. Some idiot is currently trying it on with Hillary Clinton, I presume in an attempt to derail her political future. Hopefully she will be able not only to defend herself but also drag this dirty little trick and it’s practitioners out into the harsh light of public attention and approbation.

Clive Robinson September 3, 2015 2:13 PM

@ Bruce,

This shortening of the “half life” has several causes, the obvious such as the significant rise in the number of people with access, and the rapidly inflation of the number of secrets. But also the less obvious such as the increasing performance of ICT.

Back in the 1980’s I was involved with the development of a software package for the “BBC model B” school/home computer called “Helps Uncover Latent Knowledge” or “HULK.

Put simply it alowed you to test ideas and theories against data sets, by testing the rules behind the ideas.

The modern equivalent is used by the likes of Google etc and can run thousands of tests in a few seconds on data set sizes larger than a human could read let alone analyse in a hundred life times.

Which means that secrets can nolonger “hide in plain sight” or by covered by the old accounting and administrative anonymizing techniques.

If there is data on a secret or worse holes in other data then the secret can be quickly found and confirmed against other data sets.

The problem is that any “open government” can nolonger have secrets, because they will show up in data that gets released or requested by FoI etc.

Thus what has put payed to personal privacy has also put payed to government secrecy…

LessThanObvious September 3, 2015 2:55 PM

This could seriously harm our ability to overthrow governments with disagreeable leadership. Funny how that sort of thing is somehow OK in the light of history when looking back through 20-50 years of haze and sitting comfortably in armchair knowing that something like that couldn’t happen in secret today. The world is much more complicated when there exists a realistic possibility of being accountable for your actions in real time or within a few short years.

Then again we knew the justifications for the last invasion of Iraq were a fabrication in a reasonably short period, yet we still basically ignore any concept of accountability. We have sent a clear message any future leader can hear. We will tolerate being lied to and tolerate American lives being lost under false pretenses as long as we are frightened. Maybe a shortened half life of secrets won’t hold back those that hold power all that much. All they have to do is set it up so a great number of powerful people would have to admit they were wrong and lose face and we can completely destroy any interest in accountability.

Jim September 3, 2015 3:17 PM

I am reminded of something I read after the fall of the Communist gov’t in Poland. Turns out those pre-Internet times that employees at the (state-owned) banks were using the (state-owned) private banking networks to send messages to the various branches across the country to help coordinate Solidarity strikes without resorting to media (phones, postal service, etc.) that could be monitored by the secret services. No one thought of monitoring the “business networks.” In other words, the apparat’s own technology was used to overthrow it. I think a similar thing is happening now, or will in the future.

EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy September 3, 2015 3:29 PM

An interesting feature of the paper is the identification with the generally anti-secret, anti-authority bent of hacker/internet culture with the Electronic Frontiers Foundation in particular.

Not surprising, I suppose, because the EFF does stand very much for those principles, but rather a recognition of the organization as the more effective or pervasive voice for that culture.

Kwjob4Ep September 3, 2015 4:45 PM

Not to worry, CIA adapted long ago. After more than half a century, everybody knows all about CIA’s first domestic coup d’état, but CIA’s still like Nuh-uh! while they take over the national archives and shred the evidence,


Like all criminal syndicates, US intelligence agencies don’t need secrets when they have impunity. You could clone a thousand Snowdens and Mannings and Agees and Snepps and Proutys and Binneys and Tamms and Tices and Honker Unions and NCPHs, and the threat level would just be like pale yellowish-green. What scares them is the Rome Statute, the Princeton Principles and UNGA Res. 3074 (XXVIII). That’s their one big secret.

Sancho_P September 3, 2015 5:00 PM

Not happy with that paper!
It is too close to the narrow mindset of authoritarian exceptionalism.

Trying to indiscriminately use “secrets” as a media buzzword it combines necessary “secrets” (e.g. personnel records, OPM) with humiliating details of a out-of-band spy agency (or is it the gov entirely?).

The point of the paper is how to whitewash (“explain”) shady gov activities in a globalized, interconnected world.
Taking the motivation into account, the reasoning by Peter Swire is comprehensible.

However, the “conclusion” is weak, not to say disappointing.
It’s all about (NSA) “intelligence” (read: stupidity) in a world where we so much depend on each other’s willingness to cooperate.
The world is an island. [1]

But especially the last paragraph of the conclusion reveals the author’s (willful?) ignorance of moral principles.
It is neither a matter of “need to communicate” nor a “failure to explain”:
To bug Angela’s phone or Vladimir’s bathroom is wrong (when in peace).

The name “front-page test” clearly shows the shallowness (“If revealed, would it be humiliating?”) but may help people uncertain in ethics.

For all others the question is: Would you do it to your child?

[1] inspired by:
He Wa’a He Moku,
He Moku He Wa’a

[ A canoe (is) an island,
an island (is) a canoe ]
(ancient Hawaiian saying)

Johnson September 3, 2015 8:14 PM

Not to worry, CIA adapted long ago. After more than half a century, everybody knows all about CIA’s first domestic coup d’état…

That coup d’état is also interestingly analyzed in the “A Dark Legacy” documentary series.

I think the origin of the coup was the fact that US of A was going to have two powerful political dynasties: The Kennedy family, and the Bush family.

Some members in one of these families decided to eliminate the competition, so to speak.

Milo M. September 3, 2015 8:53 PM

“During my work on the Review Group, I spoke with numerous people in the intelligence community. Not a single one said that Snowden was a whistleblower. The level of anger toward him was palpable.

By contrast, a leader in a major Silicon Valley company said during the same period that more than 90 percent of employees there would say that Snowden was a whistleblower. The gap between zero and over 90 percent is a sociological chasm.”

Alternate explanation — the first group largely resides “inside the Beltway”, in the dismissive term of many bloggers. Which location provides more daily doses of reality is a matter of opinion.

“Federal agencies have long faced challenges in hiring top technology talent, for reasons including low pay and the need to pass background checks.”

Possible other reason — reluctance to join an organization whose interviewer(s) don’t seem to have much technical expertise. The same people who likely wonder where Scott Adams gets all those ideas for strips.

“Ellsberg’s leak of the Pentagon Papers was so notable precisely because it revealed the end of the consensus among insiders that secrets must remain secret from the public.”

Ellsberg was a close friend (and co-worker) of John Paul Vann, who was a true believer to the end. Ellsberg’s motivation seems more likely derived from severe disillusionment with the never-ending war, and the outright cynicism of those who strove to keep it going. The best way to bring it to an end was sunshine. Being married to an heiress who could cover substantial legal fees didn’t hurt.

In any event, some of us find both Ellsberg and Snowden to be highly motivated, and to have done a great service to their country.

Clive Robinson September 4, 2015 5:31 AM

@ tyr,

Maybe there’s a reason for all the secrecy but it isn’t what most people think ?

Whilst the articles author is right in some respects, he has not payed attention to detail (or ignored it for some reason) some of it obvious.

However the first thing you can see is he has not mentioned MI6 or the Secret Service even though some of those he speaks of worked for them not MI5… it’s almost as though he thinks they are one and the same… but he does in passing mention GCHQ, which makes the non mention of MI6 even odder.

That is MI6 is the Foreign Security Service, allied with the Diplomatic Service and back then GCHQ. MI5 originated from “the Irish Problem” and were the Domestic Security Service, who were not allied with MI6 –and saw each other as the enemy– and their dealings with the Diplomatic service was more through the administration of foreign Diplomats to the “Court” and likewise GCHQ. That is MI5’s remit was to deal with the foreign “case officers” and illegals (NOCs) and spies/agents working for other nations and with terrorism on UK&NI soil in which the allied themselves with “Special Branch” and other Met Police agencies.

What is likwise not mentioned is some of the other MI’s or the DWS & BBC which provide other asspects.

As I’ve mentioned on this blog in the past, is there is little or no difference between Investigative Journalists and much of what the Intelligence Agencies do, basicaly collect sources material, link it together and follow the leads it generates to produce a picture of what others are trying not to mention or keep out of view. It’s why you hear of “Methods and Sources” and not so much the sometimes grubby details that go behind the bland title.

And it’s the aspects of “methods and sources” that alow one part of the IC to look down on the other. That is like the old comedy sketch by John Clease, Ronnie Barker, and Ronnie Corbet on “That was the Week that Was (TW3) about “class” the IC had a very clear pecking order. The Diplomats and Military Attachés were the “Genteel Men” of the “upper class” who went to balls, Ambassador’s dinners and chatted openly with their foreign counter parts, but did not involve themselves in the lower orders. Next was what regarded it’s self as “The profession” or “Gentelmen Spy’s” which was “The Service” as the members of MI6 called it. Then there was MI5 (trade) then the Police “plain clothes” (shop keepers) and “uniformed” (Rough Trade). Each step down becoming less “genteel” and more “sordid / mindless rough trade”.

The DWS because of it’s close association with the BBC through the “World Service” and Diplomats regarded it’s self as above the rest as not just “Mercury” messanger to the gods but as the “ears of the gods” as well.

And it was this “Cambridge above Oxford” mentality that bred the hostility. For instance the head of MI6 is for historical reasons known as “C” and like many senior posts carries a Knighthood, thus “Sir C” could be pronounced in the same way as the witch of clasical literature, and likewise the head of the Metropolitan Police would be called “Sir Met” pronounced like “cement” used for “concrete overshoes which you would hear Plod along”…

Very very petulant behaviour the like of which you would expect from six year olds in the playground, glossed over with a very thin vernier of faux gentility used in a sad little “one upmanship” game you expect from “frat houses” that use dead languages as a way to show what they mistakenly consider “moral superiority”.

A total waste of tallent. Which also happened in the agencies themselves… If you look at Peter Wright of Spy Catcher fame, even though he rose within the organisation he was treated as an outsider by the establishment, so much so, they even under the guidence of Maggie Thatcher denied him his pension entitlement, hence the reason he became a “whistle blower” by writing his book.

If he was right or wrong about Roger Hollis will probably never be known publicaly. However if you look at the history of the “Ring” you will see that “traitorous spys” in MI6 did created scandals and put the “Special Relationship” with the US IC in very real jepody, so people who realy did know about the spies within willingly looked the other way for political expediency.

Oh and Maggie Thatcher’s disenfranchisement with the IC came about due to her misguided attempts to find traitors and spies in the ranks, and the very ill advised DORA and OSA trials of the likes of Duncan Campbell (which Bruce blogged about a few weeks ago).

My own dealings with the IC taught me that supposadly clever men can be inordinately stupid and vienal and exhibiting the very worst of the Dunning-Kruger effect, made worse by the selection of those that either think like them or say what they want to hear as their advisors etc… As has been remarked “Inbreeding throws up the worst of traits, ill temperd dogs, village idiots and those who seak to rule us”.

Winter September 4, 2015 6:52 AM

“My own dealings with the IC taught me that supposadly clever men can be inordinately stupid and vienal and exhibiting the very worst of the Dunning-Kruger effect, made worse by the selection of those that either think like them or say what they want to hear as their advisors etc…”

As the Germans say:
Education does not protect against stupidity
(Bildung schützt vor Torheit nicht)

We are also reminded of the Basic laws of Human Stupidity

Wesley Parish September 4, 2015 7:01 AM

I am irresistibly reminded of a story about an old lady who went to a public lecture by a renowned astronomer, who spent the better part of an hour explaining the latest theories of the universe and its origin, and the way the observational data was explained by the theories …

The old lady interrupted and told him straight, “You’ve got it wrong, the world is supported on the back of a giant turtle!!!”

“But what is the turtle supported on?” asked said astronomer.

“You won’t fool me with that,” replied the old lady. “It’s turtle, turtles, turtles, all the way down.”

Any resemblance to the government habit of classifying everything and anything it can get its hands on, is purely accidental …

EB September 4, 2015 9:08 AM


Poland’s beloved western neighbors were “grundsätzlicher”, as befits Germans.

The STASI had an extremely accurate map of the East-German railways’ internal phone and telex network, in particular the cross-border connections in Berlin and to West-Germany, and listened in.

tyr September 4, 2015 3:55 PM


Since it gets worse the longer you examine it in depth,
the trick is to make some sense of it at all. I particularly
liked our own Angleton showing up in the remarks of one of
the nuts exhibited.

I think the most telling part of the whole thing was their
failure to predict the communist party abandoning the rule
of Russia. You’d think a nation so obsessed wth the Rus
would have paid a bit more attention to its internals.

I happen to like Adam Curtis documentaries because of their
patchwork nature and Oho! pointing out of connections. It’s
the nature of the beast that there are missing chunks and
he’s not all that naive about safely treading on sensitive
toes. Limited edition books are a lot safer when dealing
with over budgeted paranoid delusionaries, than TV which
might stir some dust from the clods.

The entry on Syria was another fun one. A classic tale of how
bringing democracy from the west works out in actual practice.
The historical record is pretty clear, Alexander with the
entire weight of the conquered Persian Empire to back him was
not able to impose democracy on the area when it was a shiny
new concept. Now that it is old and worn with all of its flaws
on display, how is anyone else going to do it by exercising the
military might they possess ?

In USA we have an interesting problem, the elites used to supply
a modicum of leadership to the rough trade as officers, now they
have opted out as there is no interest in such an unseemly way
of making a living. The elite schools have adopted the curriculum
of the schools for the masses. in consequence leaders are dumber
via education, and removed from positions of learning to be leaders
by apprenticeship. This flies in the face of biology and creates
a perfect scenario for the death of the american “empire”. All you
have to do is disconnect the elites into their delusional dream
world and let them flail about across the planet.

I did notice one omission in one of his documentaries. The Brits
used poison gas on the Kurds in the WW1 period. So all of his
materials shouldn’t be taken as absolutely accurate. No one has
really spelled out a reasonable course of action that takes the
Kurds into account. Everyone wants to bomb ISIS out of existence
but neither the Iranians, the Turks, or the Arabs wants to see
Kurdistan fill the vacuum created by eliminating ISIS and Assad.

NATO saber rattling may have aroused the Rus bear to put them on
the ground with Assad. Now there’s a magic formulae for the boys
in the IC to puzzle over, knocking around bemused moslem nutties
is easy, taking a poke at an aroused Bear is not as much fun.

It is easy to get rid of Assad, just bribe the garbage collectors
to do a walk-out for a couple of weeks. When people protest toss
a Molotov at the cops.

name.withheld.for.obvious.reasons September 4, 2015 5:46 PM

@ Anura

The CIA is the kind of organization that would put a newspaper clipping in an envelope and stamped “Confidential” on the outside. Within the government, there are secrets that are important to national security, there are secrets important to criminal investigations and military operations, there are secrets that are important only to protect against embarrassment, and there are secrets that exists only as a matter of habit.

There is an irony here, I have seen over the last year that the CIA has “disappeared” from the IC community relative to the NDI and the DoD. Recent Directives, Memos, and other internal rule making have had a curious change–the IC members addressed includes the major players such as NSA,NRO, and GEOINT…but not the CIA. There seems to be a major underlying shift in the Intel community that is NEW.

Coyne Tibbets September 5, 2015 5:03 AM

I suspect there’s another effect at work as well: there is much more wrongdoing (minor and major) going on. When the right thing was being done in the interests of national security, there were comparatively few who leaked. These days, with malfeasance everywhere, there are far more people faced with the ethical question of whether or not to whistle-blow, many more who do.

Maybe it’s perception on my part, but I have the impression malfeasance is the mainstay of WikiLeaks, for example.

albert September 5, 2015 1:28 PM

What motivated Snowden and Manning?
Was it fame or fortune? Was it a desire to become pariahs, outcasts, and hated criminals? What motivates most leakers? Are there statistics for this, or are those secret as well?
Maybe Snowden couldn’t stand illegal surveillance, and Manning couldn’t stand seeing civilians mowed down by 30-caliber cannons.
Granted not all secrets hide immoral or illegal activities, but a surprising number do. Not all secrets beg to be revealed, nor should they be. I see the present system sinking into a morass secret information, too big to be analyzed by humans. Only a tiny fraction of NSAs data is ‘useful’; the rest is garbage, and will ever remain so. Ironic isn’t it? If we had an Earth full of good people, we wouldn’t need any secrets at all.
“We have met the enemy, and he is us.” – Pogo. We are the problem, and ‘there is no political solution’.
. .. . .. o

Skeptical September 5, 2015 2:58 PM

Regarding a “culture gap”:

The anecdote about the Silicon Valley CEO at best suggests an avenue for further research. As evidence for the hypothesis, it doesn’t move the scales.

Snowden and Manning aren’t the norm for persons of their generation, either in their respective fields or outside. Let’s also remember that Snowden aside, many of the major leaks have not come from contractors, but from employees.

Do I think the IC and Silicon Valley employees likely have, on average, different views of Snowden? Of course. They will have on average different views of the United States and the US Government as well.

Does that difference have implications for the frequency of leaks? By itself, no. Again, remember that the potential leaker in question here is not the average person by definition. She or he is someone who has consciously undergone a rigorous hiring and background check process in order to serve.

Aside from self-selection, there is another, equally important difference: the opinion of the average person may change once they work for any of the various institutions within the IC. One’s views of how much a particular agency values the privacy of ordinary citizens may change once one sees that agency from the inside, rather than being presented an image driven haphazardly by Hollywood and opinionated news coverage.

Doubt me? Let me approach this from a different angle, without assuming anything favorable about the IC.

How much does the average Silicon Valley employee care about its company’s privacy practices? And how much does the average Silicon Valley company care about its privacy practices?

From the outside, most likely say “not much” or at least “not enough.”

But from the inside? Do I need to rehearse the rationalizations for discounting user privacy? “It’s voluntary.” “How else do we provide free services and change the world?” “People should be honest about who they are anyway.” “But we’re not evil.” “We’re just a private company in a magical libertarian world of freely contracting agents – it’s government you need to worry about.”

Distinctions that may be less salient to outsiders with less information and understanding might be more important to insiders who see what a company is actually doing as well. For example, different companies might treat user information differently. One might automatically and irreversibly anonymize it, and then use rather generic details of it for general usage analysis, for technical evaluation, etc. Another might have no qualms about allowing its employees to look at the gritty personal details of a user account in order to illuminate some question or another (e.g. “how can we alter our news feeds to make users more strongly attached to our service?”). And so an employee of a better company might see enormous differences between the company he works for, and a less ethical company. Not all companies are the same; and much less so are all governments, or even nominally the same governments in different historical periods.

Now, I happen to think that the culture and practices of the agencies on which the spotlight shines most frequently lately are probably genuinely much better than the impression that is given to the average Silicon Valley employee by Hollywood and the media. And so I think the above considerations regarding insider vs outsider views apply all the more strongly.

Finally, the culture gap Swire refers to isn’t new, and in fact, it’s probably narrower than it once was.

What has changed – obviously – is information technology, its proliferation, and the government’s particular use of it to communicate, store, and analyze classified information (e.g. some shift in emphasis from need-to-know to need-to-share). That change has enabled a few leaks of a more massive scale than were possible previously. But these leaks have also almost certainly shifted the bureaucratic incentives within the US Government. The person who proposes the x billion dollar transition to more secure information systems and practices that prevent these types of leaks while also enabling efficient and timely information-sharing is no longer the speculative voice imagining terrible what-ifs, far-reaching solutions, and diluting focus on ongoing missions; instead it’s now likely a top priority which many of influence will be watching closely.

Whether the moment is seized to do the job right… that’s another matter. But the skill and the will are both likely there, and so I would be optimistic about the outcome.

LaTeX geek September 9, 2015 4:04 AM

The article is beautifully typeset! Does anyone know how these results were achieved? Can this be done in LaTeX? If so, what’s the style?

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