ThreatWatch, Surveil Thyself

Chris LehmannAugust 01, 2013

Back in 2012, Baffler contributor Maureen Tkacik kicked up a fuss when she dared to venture into the content-challenged, consensus-packaging, and immensely profitable business model for The Atlantic Monthly and its many curious satellite properties. In particular, Tkacik revisited the professional CV of the magazine’s maximum leader, David Bradley–who made his first pile in the competitive world of private-sector intelligence-vetting–and offered this controversial assessment of how Bradley has overhauled today’s thought-leading Atlantic empire:

The Atlantic is a turgid mouthpiece for the plutocracy, a repository of shallow, lazy spin, and regular host of discussion forums during which nothing is discussed. It is, in every formal trait, a CIA front.

Tkacik’s piece even prompted a quasi-satirical dispatch from a correspondent with The Atlantic Wire, which sought to laugh off the brunt of her argument with an account of a New York City Baffler event formatted as a CIA field report.

Still, the real punchline in this whole affair came today, when your Baffler correspondent received an excited press release from the Atlantic Media Group announcing the launch of a new online service for users of the premium NextGov site, which tracks, as its hideous portmanteau name neatly illustrates, the unsightly intersection of the high-tech and policy worlds. The new sub-property, called ThreatWatch, seeks to provide a real-time digest of compromising security breaches the world over. Here’s a partial sample of today’s, uhm, catch:

Password cracking; User accounts compromised: Assad supporters play with Reuters comics

Spearphishing; Stolen credentials; User accounts compromised: White house staffers personal gmail hacked

Credential seeking malware; Network intrusion; Unauthorized use of system administrator privileges: Crooks net 160 million payment card numbers in raids on Citibank, PNC, Nasdaq, PNC [sic], retailers and other financial firms

The site clocked 117 such breaches in the 7 minutes we lingered there; clearly the savvy managers at The Atlantic have targeted a growth market. The real question, though, would seem to be just what interests they’re aiming to serve. NextGov correspondent Aliya Sternstein (a very smart and accomplished reporter, by the way) offers this summary of the new site’s mission:

While many organizations, including the U.S. government, are reluctant to fess up to weak security, increasingly they are disclosing more to, among other things, help others avoid similar incidents, build trust and comply with privacy rules.

The samples show trends in how fast infiltrations are detected, how quickly affected individuals are notified, and the types of tricks attackers are using. The suspected perpetrators might surprise you. As of this writing, there are more internal employees than Chinese-sponsored hackers responsible for data compromises.

Still, it’s not clear just what the takeaway from this cache of surprising intel is intended to be. Should digital paymasters in the private sector be girding up for “Cyberwar” against their own leak-prone employees? And how, exactly, will greater compliance with privacy rules be achieved in a world where the National Security Agency has permanently annexed your privacy to its to-do list?

Indeed, one can’t help but wonder how something like ThreatWatch would treat something like the leaks engineered by Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, which were animated by the nonsinister desire to let American citizens know just what their permanent government has been doing in their own name. Whistleblowing does indeed involve systemic leaks, and potential grave compromises to various matrixes of data-gathering. It’s also, as these things are traditionally defined, an act of journalism. But then, hey, so is the act of paying writers, and it seems that The Atlantic appears to be in the process of dismantling that barrier to entry. SO maybe Tkacik misjudged the Bradley-era Atlantic shop: After all, even the CIA used to keep informants on retainer, back in the day.

Chris Lehmann is editor in chief of The Baffler and author of Rich People Things. His latest book, The Money Cult, is out now from Melville House.