A decade ago, when low-level insiders with access to classified national security documents exposed the United States’ secrets to the public, they were assailed as traitors or hailed as whistleblowers, depending on one’s political bent.
This week, after revelations that a low-level technician in the Massachusetts Air National Guard allegedly shared hundreds of top-secret military intelligence documents online, there was little mention of treason and only occasional whispers of whistleblowing. The reactions and language are different this time because even though the underlying crime is the same — 21-year-old Jack Teixeira was charged Friday with taking and transmitting secret defense information and with willfully retaining classified documents — the apparent motives and methods stem from sharply different subcultures of American society.
Over the past decade, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Reality Winner were prominent examples of ideologically motivated U.S. government employees and contractors who illegally took top-secret documents and made them public in an effort to change U.S. policies or practices. In Snowden’s case, for example, he abused his security clearance in 2013 to protest federal efforts to collect bulk records of Americans’ phone calls, which he considered an egregious violation of constitutional rights.
The alleged Discord leaker — so dubbed because he is accused of putting the documents on that online chat platform frequented mostly by young gamers — has made no such claim, according to friends and people who spent time in the same chatrooms.
Although the Discord leaker was critical of some U.S. policies and trafficked in the same racist, antisemitic and anti-gay memes and slogans that many of his online buddies bandied about, he seemed to be driven not by ideology or political activism, but by a desire to prove himself to his online acquaintances.
No evidence has emerged to suggest that this leaker sought a particular change in how his country was handling the war between Russia and Ukraine, for instance. The documents he is accused of leaking did not show any one particular view: Some illustrated Ukraine’s weaknesses in the conflict; others demonstrated Russia’s flaws.
Rather, the leaker seemed to want to share classified documents because he could, because it seemed like the rebellious thing to do, and because he naively trusted his pals on Discord to keep the classified materials among themselves, according to others in the chat group.
Discord was where he would hang out and yak with friends — about computer games, religion, music, libertarianism, stuff they liked on YouTube — and the platform was therefore where he wanted to share his work. If any motive can be discerned from the emerging portrait of the suspect, it is that he wanted his compatriots in Thug Shaker Central, as they called their Discord chatroom, to see that he had access to cool stuff.
That does not lessen the dangers to national security posed by unauthorized release of classified documents, but it does shine a light on a security risk that has received far less attention than the politically motivated leaks by self-proclaimed whistleblowers of recent years.
In the fast-changing fields of cyberlaw and cybersecurity, the leaker (“OG” to his Discord friends) is an example of a growing phenomenon that experts have termed “digital generation insider threat” — the almost-inevitable emergence of a class of leakers who seek not to cause political chaos but rather to live life online as transparently as they can, with little regard to rules they consider old-fashioned or outdated.
Their philosophy, naive as it sounds, is that “secrecy is for losers,” said Alexis Wichowski, an information scientist who teaches at Columbia University and was formerly the deputy chief technology officer for New York City.
“This is not a traditional leak,” Wichowski said. “It is not an intentional effort to make something public. This is taking secret information and sharing it with a very small group to educate or empower them. This was meant for his tribe, to give them a leg up on the general public.”
National security officials often are accused of fighting the last war; in the post-Snowden years, that has meant scouring the government’s 2 million employees and contractors who hold security clearances for signs of political extremism or vociferous opposition to U.S. policies.
But inside the government and among academics and industry executives who specialize in cyberlaw and cybersecurity, many people who think about the next threat also have been talking about the likelihood that someone like the alleged Discord leaker would come along. They believe danger can arise from hiring and trusting technology experts who grew up in digital culture and believe both that “secrecy is for losers” and that the government unduly hoards information.
The person accused in the Discord leak, unlike Manning, Snowden or Winner, appears to represent a widely held perspective in which people whose closest relationships are online see no reason not to expose every aspect of their lives to their digital friends. Leaks like this may seem less serious because they are not carried out in service of political motivations, but they also are harder to detect, control and prevent, precisely because the leaks seem so casual.
“Here, have some leaked documents,” a Discord user wrote as he uploaded some of the classified records to another chatroom, this one focused on the Minecraft computer game, with about 8,000 members.
“Nice,” came a reply from another user.
Snowden said he wanted the journalists with whom he shared classified material to protect the identities of U.S. operatives mentioned in some of the documents he exposed. Winner — the 25-year-old National Security Agency contractor who stole a top-secret report about a Russian cyberattack on U.S. election infrastructure in 2017 — passed the document to the Intercept, a digital news site, expressly to get it out into the wider world.
The Discord leaker took no such care, made no such effort; the person appears to have just dumped material online.
This kind of leaking, for its own sake, “may be more dangerous than overtly political leaks because it could become more prevalent and random,” said Jon Mills, a law professor at the University of Florida who focuses on privacy and cybersecurity and is a former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives. “This is a new level of danger. This should be a wake-up call.”
Guarding against a Snowden requires searching for security-cleared individuals — a large but knowable universe — who have an ax to grind and who may have a public record of expressing political views, online or in person. Guarding against someone like the Discord leaker would mean confronting a far bigger, far better-hidden world of people who frequent forums that are largely invisible to authorities.
Discord has 19 million chatrooms, known as servers, and about 150 million monthly users. It is at once a secluded garden brimming with private clubhouses and a densely populated universe of people who win each other’s trust — even as they remain anonymous — in part by expressing rebellion, antipathy to authority or socially unacceptable ideas.
In that context, posting secret documents can be seen inside the chatroom not as an act of a whistleblower, traitor or spy, but rather as an endearing, amusing or daring expression of trust in each other.
Although the term “digital generation insider threat” implies that the danger stems mainly from young people, that is not necessarily the case, security experts warn.
“We have to be careful about making Teixeira an example of an entire generation. But this is a generation with more trust in strangers than any previous cohort,” said John Della Volpe, the director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics and the author of “Fight: How Gen Z Is Channeling Their Fear and Passion to Save America.”
That trust lends itself to being abused. Communication in Discord and other such forums is remarkably open. Digital natives are generally unconcerned about sharing secrets because “by and large, they believe that cat is out of the bag when it comes to sharing information or their personal data,” Della Volpe said.
And sharing juicy secrets becomes a way of connecting with strangers. “Young men are as lonely as any cohort we’ve measured in recent decades,” he added. That makes them susceptible to appeals to their outsider identity, and “every day, there are examples of innocent young men who get drawn into pornography, extremism, white nationalism, Christian nationalism.”
But extremist views are not necessarily behind decisions like the Discord leaker’s. “He could have done this with what he saw as the purest of motives — to make his family proud, to build a community for himself, to serve his country,” Della Volpe said. “Instead, he’s put his country in danger and likely ruined his life and his family’s.”
Teixeira was spending much of his social time on Discord well before he joined the Air National Guard, according to online friends who chatted with him about guns, Catholicism and libertarian politics.
He allegedly started posting classified documents last year. He wanted his Discord friends, most of them teenagers, to know more about the war in Ukraine, and he trusted them with the documents, one friend told The Washington Post.
The notion that the same person who passed a government security vetting could believe it was okay to trust anonymous online acquaintances with secret documents may seem incongruous, but those who study social attitudes among digital natives say the government’s need for airtight security and a young generation’s widespread embrace of online transparency have been on a collision course for years.
“This is a digital-era phenomenon, but it’s not just about youth,” Wichowski said. As many people come to have their most valued relationships online, “they’re proudly identifying with a particular trait — gun enthusiasm or gender or ethnicity, for example — and they’re aggressively defensive and firmly believe their group is right,” she said.
“Tribing is happening in all ages, on the right and the left,” she added. “It’s not the hacker attitude of ‘information wants to be free,’ but rather a tribal attitude of ‘We take care of our own.’”
The florid sharing of detailed information — personal, political or professional — within online groups of like-minded but often-anonymous acquaintances started with people born in the digital era, she said, but “during covid, it spread to all ages as people formed new, closer bonds with others online.”
“Maybe all you know is their handle or an avatar, but you feel you can trust them because you share an us-versus-them set of beliefs,” Wichowski said.
In that context, sharing classified documents still registers to most people as an egregious act, but to some, it’s the ultimate way to prove commitment and loyalty.
Even people who would never consider exposing national secrets often think the country would be better off if many such secrets were revealed, said Mills, the law professor.
“Increasingly, especially among young people, the attitude is that things should be open unless absolutely necessary and government is being too covert about too many things,” he said. “It appears that in practice, most people don’t care about intrusions into their privacy — until it’s maybe their medical information that gets disclosed.”
In 2013, after Snowden leaked documents detailing government surveillance programs, a Washington Post survey found Americans’ attitudes about surveillance and privacy to be anything but consistent. Large majorities of Americans worried about the intrusiveness of information collection by the government or private companies, yet equally large majorities said they monitor their children’s texts, emails and internet usage.
The Post survey did not find significant differences in attitudes toward privacy across age groups. But a Pew Research poll in 2014 found that Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 were much more supportive of Snowden’s leak than older people were; 57 percent of millennials said his disclosure served the public interest; 35 percent of people age 65 or older said the same.
A decade later, especially in internet backyards where platforms such as Discord provide semiprivate meeting places, “the constituency for privacy just isn’t there,” Mills said. “I hear this from my students all the time: ‘I have nothing to fear. All of us share everything with everybody.’ Putting your whole life online is viewed as good.”
Yet, Mills finds that when he teaches courses on cybersecurity, students who begin the semester arguing for absolute transparency end up concluding that “they’re skeptical of government, but there are limits. They see that the technology that knows what kind of shoes you like to buy can very quickly become Big Brother. The public doesn’t want its soldiers exposed to risk, and they don’t support this kind of leaking.”