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Saturday, May 15, 1999 Published at 01:46 GMT 02:46 UK


How secrets slip through the Net

The Internet helped pierce the government's veil of secrecy

By Washington Correspondent Paul Reynolds and News Online's Kevin Anderson

The British Government's failure to stop the publication of a list of alleged Secret Intelligence Service or MI6 agents has turned out to be a classic study of the power of the Internet to overcome controls.

Although the government was successful in closing some sites, they had already been copied and rapidly appeared on mirror sites. Indeed, the more the authorities tried to suppress the information, the more sought after it became.

The treasure hunters in cyberspace became determined to find their prize and they did so. The question has to be asked as to whether the publicity given by the government to the list in the first place only increased interest in it.

Government appeals to press

[ image: Former agent threatened to reveal names]
Former agent threatened to reveal names
The British Government has publicly accused a dismissed MI6 officer, Richard Tomlinson, of providing the 116 names, and it appealed to the British media not to publish either the names or the addresses of the Websites on which they were displayed.

This appeal was put out by the Defence, Press and Broadcasting Advisory Committee, which is sometimes known as the D notice committee.

The committee - run by two retired Royal Navy officers, Rear Admiral David Pulvertaft and his deputy, Commander Francis Ponsonby - "advises" the media on security issues.

The appeal has been generally complied with, but they have been in turn badly holed by the stealth tactics of the Internet.

Moving target

[ image: Tomlinson moved his site to keep it live]
Tomlinson moved his site to keep it live
It started when Richard Tomlinson opened a Website with GeoCities, which allows users to set up personal home pages for free.

GeoCities removed the site saying that Tomlinson had violated its usage policy, but he was able to repost the site to another address on GeoCities.

The California-based hosting service closed the second site by Wednesday evening, but not before it was copied and mirrored to other sites on the Internet.

This site named several MI6 officers previously accused by Tomlinson of having information about Princess Diana's fatal crash in Paris. These names were not new.

They had been released in an affidavit Tomlinson had delivered before the investigating judge, saying that the driver of her car Henri Paul, who also died in the crash, had been an MI6 informer.

The list of leaks

[ image: Internet users hunted for the names]
Internet users hunted for the names
The site also promised to publish a longer list of MI6 officers, but did not in fact do so, following a court order in Switzerland where Tomlinson now lives.

The list did emerge, however, elsewhere.

The Executive Intelligence Review, a magazine published by maverick political figure and conspiracy theorist Lyndon LaRouche, displayed the list briefly in a story on its Website and appears to have been the source of concern expressed by the D Notice committee.

The EIR site said that the information had come unsolicited by e-mail from an "honest man who had left MI6" (presumably Tomlinson).

Shortly afterwards, this story was removed. The editor of EIR, Peter Sigerson, told the BBC that this was on legal advice after a request from the British government.

But EIR had already, on Wednesday, sent out 9,000 copies of its magazine with the list in it, said Mr Sigerson.

The Internet: Global copy machine

It was also too late, because the EIR story had already been copied, posted in a newsgroup and mirrored elsewhere, and it is here that a defining characteristic of the Internet is shown.

Whenever an interesting site appears, you can be sure that someone, somewhere will copy it in seconds. In this, case several people did.

And one of them sent it to a New York architect named John Young, who runs a group dedicated to publishing security and intelligence documents on its website.

Mr Young told the BBC that he had circulated a request for the list and in due course it arrived by e-mail. It was a copy of the EIR story.

He said he did not think the people named were at risk, and that such information should be published in any case. It was not long before other sites around the world began displaying the list.

The cat was not only out of the bag, it was running away fast.

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