Chronically Online Gen Z-er, Meet Government Secrets
On April 13, federal authorities arrested the suspect allegedly responsible for the most recent leak of classified information that has sent shockwaves throughout Washington and the Western world. But this suspect is not an intelligence-leaking culprit of lore, an Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning caught sharing state secrets to an organization dedicated to transparency, for better or worse.
Instead, federal law enforcement agents arrested Jack Teixeira, a 21-year-old Massachusetts Air National Guardsman, at his mother’s home in North Dighton, Massachusetts. Teixeira is accused of sharing highly sensitive information with a Discord group chat called “Thug Shaker Central.”
The documents contained everything from Ukrainian air defense plans and Russian intelligence information to revelations on Chinese spy balloons and information on other U.S. foes and allies. But Teixeira didn’t share this information for political reasons – he didn’t even intentionally post it publicly online. “Thug Shaker Central” was an invite-only group of 20 to 30 young men, many under 18. Members of the chat group told The New York Times that Teixeira wanted to use his position as a leader of the group, where he was referred to as “O.G,” to inform the curious group of young people about “what’s going on” in the real world.
The group united at the heart of the pandemic, spurred by real-world isolation, and stirred by their shared interests in video games and guns. The information was confined within the group until it was shared in another group chat by a 17-year-old, who likely did not understand the significance of what he was reading. This pattern continued as photos of documents with “TOP SECRET” sprawled across the top bounced between chats about Minecraft and mildly popular YouTubers, only reaching beyond Discord in early April. By then, the damage had been done.
Teixeira’s situation, driven by a desire to show off, represents a new potential threat to government intelligence as we know it – the chronically online Gen Z moving into adulthood. Gen Z is the first generation raised without the knowledge of life before the Internet, and even for those young people who managed to evade the social media boom at a key developmental stage of life, the pandemic shifted the attention of young people toward the Internet more than ever before. In 2022, nearly half of surveyed 13 to 17-year-olds reported using the Internet “almost constantly.” This is nearly double the rates seen during a survey conducted in 2014. Notably, however, the types of media that they’re using are changing, with YouTube, TikTok, and Twitch rising to new prominence.
Unlike social media sites of old, which featured individuals mostly communicating with people they know personally, YouTube, TikTok, and Twitch are creator-centric, drawing together groups of people with a common interest. In the shadows of COVID, this provided young people with communities that they otherwise couldn’t access. However, these channels can easily become echo chambers for radicalization and extreme ideology. Such echo chambers, when combined with platforms such as Discord or Reddit that provide subscribers of extreme ideologies with limited- or un-moderated discussion forums, create a new challenge in the Internet age.
The online group chat has increasingly become a source of geopolitical stress since the phenomenon’s explosion in the 2010s – from 4chan groups acting dubiously surrounding Trump’s election to their role in the collapse of the Silicon Valley Bank in March. But while these groups and the racist and otherwise problematic content that can swirl around them certainly are not to be ignored, their role becomes complicated when one realizes that often, as seen within Teixeira’s group, the participants are children.
It has yet to be entirely seen how the world will change as a chronically online generation moves into the workforce, including positions where they may have access to sensitive information. It’s not a stretch, however, to conclude that to many teens, privacy is a bygone concept. Gen Z has never known a world without the prevalence of data sharing, creating for many not just a false sense of security in sharing information on the Internet, but even a lack of acknowledgment of its importance – or at least feelings of hypocrisy towards government regulation regarding data privacy, as evidenced in youth skepticism towards a TikTok ban. As Vox explains, “Data privacy concerns that older politicians invoke just don’t seem to worry young people, who are used to being tracked and surveilled.”
Teixeira’s situation shows what happens when all these elements are combined: a chronically online young person with an echo-chamber group chat and a potentially understated view of privacy got access to classified information. While governments shouldn’t expect this to be the norm, as The Washington Post explains, the Internet is a big place where any of the 3 million Americans with security clearance can “connect with, send information to, or get hacked by pretty much anyone else, anywhere in the world, at any time.” As young people with a unique relationship with the Internet continue to come of age, it may be time for governments to rethink the ways they aim to protect sensitive information.