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Terabyte Leaks and Political Legitimacy in the U.S. and China

What the brave new world of global information warfare means for political and business elites everywhere.

January 24, 2014

Credit: Oleksiy Mark -

The “leaking” of information is a time-honored tactic to undermine the legitimacy of a political opponent or a policy. Sir Winston Churchill relied on it during the run-up to World War II to attack what he saw as weak British responses to German rearmament.

Ever the master of using information and disinformation, he would use question time in the parliament to reveal morsels of secret information. As part of an embarrassment strategy, these were drawn from UK intelligence assessments of Germany’s military build-up and from UK policy planning documents.

At another level, the sustained control of information has always been viewed as central to political power. The totalitarian governments of the 20th century were among the best practitioners. The term propaganda came to symbolize this technique of political control of information.

Leaks and global governance

In such a governance frame, the idea of a strategic leak has always been one of a slow trickle of pieces of information. Meanwhile, the event itself or the process in question was unlikely to undermine the power of a determined state propaganda machine.

But now the old style of a steady flow of bit-by-bit “leaks” may be passing into history. Welcome to the brave new world of avalanche-like leaks, where the unauthorized release of secrets has moved from a trickle to a virtual flood.

And now, that flood has even biblical proportions. Wikileaks has been a manifestation of the changing times. All that is required is having a suitable platform to release those occasional floods of secret information.

In publishing 251,287 diplomatic cables from the U.S. government, the Wikileaks website provided a sustained embarrassment to the United States.

Wikileaks is passing into history

While there were temporary setbacks, the leaks did not shake the government to its core — or bring about the end of any political career. The total file size of the entire package of leaked cables was less than two gigabytes (2 billion bytes).

But Wikileaks is passing into history. By comparison, on some estimates, Edward Snowden took from the NSA 2,000 times as much information (4 terabytes, or 8 trillion bytes).

This did shake the United States government to the core. It did so not because Snowden revealed unusual activities that were not previously contemplated. The surprise lay in the scale of activity for which the U.S. government was fingered. That stunned people around the globe, foreigners first and, remarkably, American citizens later.

Leaks and legitimacy

The terabyte leaks of Snowden raised serious questions about the capacity of the United States government at a high political level: Can it contain the enormous technological potential of its own machines as well as the officials and managers who operate them?

The issue is not just one of basic constitutional rights. It also immediately raises questions of the moral legitimacy of government. The contest over whether Snowden’s acts were heroic or traitorous speaks to the depth of his impact on the legitimacy of the Obama administration.

That was June 2013. Within just seven short months, the wheel has turned again. The numbers have become even more staggering and the political environment around information security has become more chaotic as a result.

As the absolute size of the “leaks” is growing, it seems there will be growing threats to political legitimacy not really imaginable in earlier days.

China’s Snowden moment

Just as Wikileaks shook the US government to its core, China is now facing a similar seismic event.

This has been particularly visible in reports this week analyzing 2.5 million leaked files from offshore tax havens in the British Virgin Islands and the Cook Islands.

The leaks in question occurred more than a year ago and led to rapid adjustments in many tax jurisdictions to close loopholes highlighted by particular cases in the leaked documents.

But the sheer volume of the material meant that it has taken a team of more than 50 journalists worldwide over a year to start to see the totality of the files in a way that speaks very directly to bigger issues of political legitimacy.

As one might expect of journalists, to address the way these leaks threaten political legitimacy, they chose a prime news target: China’s ruling Communist Party and its wealthiest entrepreneurs.

In these tax havens, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has identified 22,000 separate clients residing in China (including Hong Kong) who held offshore accounts. These are included in a database accessible through the ICIJ website.

The “red nobility” goes fishing

Their reports on China this week highlight the wealth and offshore trading of China’s “red nobility”, descendants or relatives of former or current Chinese leaders. There are no smoking guns revealed in the ICIJ reports on China so far, but there is no doubting the political sensitivity of the leaks.

To be sure, China’s internet censors have blocked all access in China to the database webpage and almost all access to the reports.

International media have correctly pointed out the link between this sort of information leak and the cases in 2012 of reports on the personal wealth of the extended family members of Wen Jiabao (then the Prime Minister) and Xi Jinping (then the named successor as Communist Party Secretary General).

Yet, the bigger story is not in the specifics of even these two notable families, but rather in the new phenomenon that the ICIJ database and its information sources represent.

Credibility at stake

Even if the Chinese offshore accounts are not illegal, many will be in some way connected with corrupt activity. Either way, the available data is so extensive and so unfamiliar to most Chinese citizens that it puts the credibility of the entire Chinese ruling elite in play. It does not matter whether this is elaborated in broad daylight or not.

Behind the scenes in China, the leaders have moved aggressively to shore up cyber security arrangements affecting their personal lives. But all indications are that this is an exercise doomed to failure.

There is now no single issue more sensitive in China than internet reporting on the leaders. Nor is there a topic of more public interest which, depending on your viewpoint, may either be curious or predictable for a formerly very closed society.

To counteract that imminent threat, China’s leadership has tried the route of technical surveillance by any means and of anyone.

Internet terror, anyone?

The term “internet terror” is used in newspapers in China to describe the practice of using leaked information to affect political careers and personal lives. The leaders now know that it affects them, and their hold on power, as well.

They fear the near certainty that there is a Chinese Edward Snowden out there who will deliver an even greater information catastrophe to them.

They also fear that one day soon, the U.S. intelligence community, with its massive cyber surveillance capability, will link up with investigative journalists or other activists to publish sensitive information about the leaders on such a scale that the Community Party itself will be discredited almost overnight.

They have images from 1989 in their minds: the Tiananmen protests and the collapse of Communist Parties in Eastern Europe. Now they fear the next wave of resistance will occur online.

Indeed, the U.S. government in 2010 offered funding for Falun Gong internet activity against the Chinese government.

Welcome to the info wars

These considerations give rise to a possible process of action and reaction. This mix of insecurity and conjecture could possibly lead to an information war.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry has already called into question the motives of the ICIJ, meaning a presumption that they are trying to dismantle Party legitimacy in China. As the terabyte leaks affecting China’s political class accumulate, the leaders’ insecurity will also increase.

One thing is for sure: The international information wars are moving to new levels. Issues of ethics and legitimacy long considered settled are now at risk in novel ways either because of the very large scale of leaks themselves or the scale they can take on through new internet-based media.

In the end, we may hope that liberal democracy — as in rule by the people in an atmosphere of personal freedom — can be the ultimate victor. But those who study the new technologies and politics, including in China, do not see that as inevitable.


The old style of trickle-like “leaks” is passing into history.

Welcome to the brave new world of avalanche-like leaks. Thanks be to Assange, Snowden and their acolytes.

Wikileaks is passing into history. Snowden took 2,000x as much data from the NSA (4 TB, or 8 trillion bytes).

The Snowden question: Can the U.S. government contain the enormous technological potential of its own machines?

Just as Wikileaks shook the US government to its core, China is now facing a similar seismic event.

China’s leaders fear a Chinese Edward Snowden who will deliver an even greater information catastrophe to them.

Chinese leadership’s offshore accounts put the credibility of the entire Chinese ruling elite in play.

The U.S. intel community, with its cyber surveillance capability, may link up with journalists against China.

Sensitive data about China’s leaders could discredit the Community Party almost overnight.

China’s leaders have images of 1989 in their minds: Tiananmen and the collapse of Eastern Europe’s Communists.

One thing is for sure: The international information wars are moving to new levels.

Issues of elite ethics and legitimacy, long considered settled, are now at risk to be reopened in novel ways.

We can hope that liberal democracy may be the ultimate victor but that is not inevitable.