Commentary

Internet To The Government: No, You Can't Have It Back

A cat sits in a bag; his owner doesn't approve

hide caption I CAN HAZ NUKULAR PROLIFURASHUN: Now stay in that bag and don't come out!

GrooverFW, Flickr

On days like this, I bet the Government Printing Office (GPO) wishes it had a giant undo button for the entire Internet - that, or Superman-like abilities to zoom around the earth and turn back time.

A couple of days ago, a blogger at the Federation of American Scientists' Secrecy News blog noticed that the GPO had posted a document on its Web site called "The List of Sites, Locations, Facilities And Activities Declared To The International Atomic Energy Agency."

Publishing government documents is the GPO's bread and butter, of course. But in this case, there was a problem - the document contained sensitive, not-intended-for-the-public information on literally every nuclear facility in the United States.

Apart from the potential economic benefit the release could have for the makers of Pepto Bismol and Xanax, the error has become a major embarrassment for the feds. While security experts debate the potential impact of the publishing mistake, it serves as yet another opportunity to break out the cliches: The genie is out of the bottle. The cat's out of the bag. You can't stop the signal. Pandora's box and all that. Because when it comes to the Internet, there's no such thing as a retraction. Once it's out there, it's out there, and there's not a damn thing you can do about it.

When the FAS blog wrote about the document, they linked to it on the GPO Web site. The GPO realized it had committed the faux pas and removed the document. So the FAS quickly took the copy of the PDF that they'd saved - just in case - and posted it on their own server. (At the time of writing, the FAS Web site is slow as molasses, given how everyone and their dog is trying to download the document.)

One commenter on the site questioned their decision to publish it. "Any plans to do your country a favor and remove this document?" he asked. The question is moot, though, as someone has already put a copy of it on WikiLeaks, which in turn placed it on servers around the world, from Latvia to Tonga.

For the sake of argument, let's say the U.S. government managed to cajole the Latvias and Tongas of the world to have their local copies of the document removed. But even that wouldn't stop the - ahem - proliferation of the document, as now it's also out there on the TOR network. For those of you not familiar with TOR, it's a system for protecting online dissidents from their own governments, rendering their online activities and content anonymous by hopping from one random server to another, so it's impossible to trace the point of origin. In other words, the cat is so far out of the bag, it's left the neighborhood, and no amount of tuna will ever bring it back.

And the cat's had kittens.

Writing for Ars Technica, John Timmer summarizes the matter:

[T]he path the document took to public recognition highlights the changes the Internet has brought to the process of journalism. It has allowed interested parties—in this case, the Federation of American Scientists—to easily monitor the places where accidental disclosures of this sort are likely to take place, and provided them a way to reach the wider world (even if their blog had to be amplified by traditional press outlets to get there). The disclosure also highlights how digitized documents can have a life of their own, turning a limited accident into a one-way ticket to public disclosure.

So the GPO may never get that universal undo button - or a resident Superman, for that matter. Perhaps an "Are you really, really sure?" pop-up warning whenever someone there tries pressing the publish button would suffice.

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