‘It’s crucial that news outlets find a secure route for sources to come to them,’ said Kevin Poulsen. Photograph: screen grab of newyorker.com/strongbox
When Kevin Poulsen, a former hacker who now edits at Wired magazine, came up with the idea two years ago of creating an open-source drop box for leaked documents along the lines of WikiLeaks, he could not have imagined that its launch would coincide with one of the most aggressive US government assaults on press freedom in a generation.
Deaddrop unveiled itself to the world on Thursday, three days afterAssociated Press revealed that it had been subjected to a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into its news gathering by the Justice Department. Leak investigators had obtained phone records of more than 20 telephone lines used by AP journalists, without the news agency being informed of the violation.
For Poulsen, this week’s coincidental confluence of events underlines the potential value and importance of the DeadDrop project. “With the risks now so high – not just from the US government but also the Chinese government that is hacking newsrooms in the West – it’s crucial that news outlets find a secure route for sources to come to them.”
But this week’s AP saga has also underscored the perils involved for anyone brave enough to try and leak information. As a further reminder of the dangers, Bradley Manning will go on trial next month facing possible life in military custody with no chance of parole for having been the source of the huge WikiLeaks trove of US state secrets.
The Manning trial has a further relevance to the launch of DeadDrop, Poulsen believes. In a pre-trial hearing in February, Manning disclosed that before making contact with WikiLeaks he had attempted to hand his enormous mountain of digital documents to the Washington Post, New York Times and Politico but failed to find a way into any of those organisations.
“This is the important lesson here. There was no natural route for Manning to gain entry, and it was a simple idea from WikiLeaks of creating a web forum where documents could be securely uploaded that led to their huge scoops.”
DeadDrop relies on code that was written by the open data campaigner Aaron Swartz and completed just a month before he committed suicide in January. It will be open for any person or institution to use and develop. Poulsen expects that some people will spin off their own versions – or “fork the code” as it’s known in the business – while a canonical top copy will be maintained that can be constantly updated and improved.
The first major use of the code has been pioneered by the New Yorker, Wired’s sister magazine within Condé Nast, which has posted its version on its website under the title Strongbox. Nicholas Thompson, editor of newyorker.com, hopes that the new anonymous information sharing service will help redress the imbalance in what he calls the “data arms race”.
“Technology for surveillance and data capture by companies monitoring our behaviour has developed at such a pace that data privacy has failed to keep up. It’s an arms race between data capture and data privacy, and data capture is winning.”
The drop box is already a leap ahead of the technology used by WikiLeaks in that it allows for a two-way communication between source and journalist, and not just a one-way handing over of information. Sources are able to upload documents anonymously through the Tor network onto servers that will be kept separate from the New Yorker’s main computer system. Leakers are then given a unique code name that allows New Yorker reporters or editors to contact them through messages left on Strongbox.
Early reviews of the service have generally been favourable. Jonathan Stray of the Overview Project praises the use of the Tor network as the “gold standard for anonymous online communication”.
But Stray warns potential leakers against being lulled into a false sense of safety: “I think we need to understand it is far from a complete solution to the problem of source security.”
Strongbox may be secure, but if journalist and source are tempted to step outside its boundaries and communicate in other ways – by phone or email, for instance – they will leave behind a trail that can be traced. “Whether or not this is a problem depends on who you are trying to keep secrets from – as the recent secret DOJ subpoena of AP phone records shows,” Stray writes.
That danger was neatly illustrated by Bradley Manning. He was undone not through any breach in the secure channels through which he uploaded information to WikiLeaks, but because he engaged in a web-chat with the former hacker Adrian Lamo who then shopped him to the authorities.
Paradoxically, the transcript of those web chats were first published by Wired, having been brought to the magazine by Kevin Poulsen.
So far, experimentation with the creation of drop boxes to facilitate anonymous digital leaking has failed to reach the dizzy heights that WikiLeaks attained in 2010. Since 2011, WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange have been so beleaguered by legal and financial problems that they have closed their secure uploading channel altogether; the only way currently to pass information to the organisation is through direct contact with one of its small inner coterie.
An attempt by WikiLeaks defector Daniel Domscheit-Berg to create a spin-off called OpenLeaks has failed to make much impression. Similarly disappointing results have been experienced by mainstream news organisations attempting to take on the mantle of WikiLeaks.
The Wall Street Journal came under heavy criticism for the technical glitches contained in its anonymous drop box, SafeHouse, launched in 2011 that analysts said could have put leakers at risk of detection. The service is still available on wsj.com, but the Journal declined to comment about it suggesting it has been less than an unqualified success.
The New York Times also considered setting up a leakers’ drop box in 2011, but decided not to go ahead. A spokeswoman said: “As with any potential reporting tool, we’ll likely revisit the idea in the future as our reporting needs evolve.”
Jay Rosen, media critic at New York university, said the patchy record of such innovations told their own story. “It’s obvious the difficulties are greater than we thought. Since WikiLeaks, the authorities have become much more aggressive in prosecuting, and we’re still a long way from offering confidence in this system.”
With Julian Assange holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London and whistleblower Bradley Manning facing a full-blown military prosecution, it is tempting to regard the WikiLeaks saga as in its final chapter.
It’s not just the “incredible act of institutional vengeance” upon WikiLeaks source Manning, who faces charges including aiding the enemy and “could, theoretically receive a death sentence”.
There’s also “the horrific case of Aaron Swartz, a genius who helped create the technology behind Reddit at the age of 14, who earlier this year hanged himself after the government threatened him with 35 years in jail for downloading a bunch of academic documents from an MIT server”.
Taibbi notes a number of other examples of “fervent, desperate prosecutions” by US authorities in the cause of secret-keeping.
These prosecutions reflected an obvious institutional terror of letting the public see the sausage-factory locked behind the closed doors not only of the state, but of banks and universities and other such institutional pillars of society.
The WikiLeaks episode, therefore, “was just an early preview of the inevitable confrontation between the citizens of the industrialised world and the giant, increasingly secretive bureaucracies that support them”.
And, writes Taibbi, “the secret-keepers got lucky with WikiLeaks”, with the story playing out as “one about Assange and his personal failings”.
The main event, he reckons, is to come.
Sooner or later, there’s going to be a pitched battle, one where the state won’t be able to peel off one lone Julian Assange or Bradley Manning and batter him into nothingness. Next time around, it’ll be a Pentagon Papers-style constitutional crisis, where the public’s legitimate right to know will be pitted head-to-head with presidents, generals and CEOs.
Taibbi’s piece was prompted by seeing a preview of Alex Gibney’s new documentary film We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks. He loved it (“brilliant … beautiful and profound”) but many of Assange’s supporters have been ferociously attacking the film, as Greg Mitchell notes in his Nation column. Even before going on release, the documentary has become “a media sensation”.