‘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.”
The Battlefield: Christopher Dodd was at one point an alleged elected representative of the people. As a US Senator he was charged with upholding the Constitution and laws of the people, and representing the interests of voters in his state of Connecticut – for 30 years. In reality, Dodd didn’t represent the people, and instead, represents corporate special-interests – and unfortunately, Dodd is not the exception.
In early 2011, it was announced that Dodd – after retiring from 30 years in the Senate – would take up a leading role at the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA) for a $1.5 million annual salary. Immediately, the retired Senator would lead the charge to pass the notorious Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), with his incestuous business-government ties visibly rippling through the US House and Senate as well as through the corporate-dominated media.
Despite the obvious conflict of interests and dangerous precedent set by corporations commandeering elected representatives to leverage their influence and bend the law of the people to the will of big corporations, Dodd has been allowed to continue on with the charade. It was recently reported in Wired’s article, “Hollywood’s Total Piracy Awareness Program Set for January Launch,” that:
Beginning in a few weeks, the nation’s major internet service providers will roll out an initiative — backed by Obama and pushed by Hollywood and the record labels – to disrupt and possibly terminate internet access for online copyright scofflaws without the involvement of cops or courts. But that doesn’t mean Hollywood is done filing lawsuits or lobbying Congress.
“It doesn’t mean you give up on litigation,” said Chris Dodd, head of the Motion Picture Association of America, speaking at an industry gathering here Thursday. “It doesn’t mean you give up on legislation.”
As stated in “Decentralizing Telecom,” to constantly fight the interests of mega-corporations, while thus far successful, is not a sustainable strategy. Reacting to the provocations of special interests as they relentlessly attempt to expand their already unwarranted influence and monopolies, must be replaced with a strategy aimed at the very source of their strength.
File sharing is not wrong, and it most certainly is not theft. One would not consider sharing a purchased book with a friend, “theft.” Technology has simply made it possible to share that book with millions of “friends.” File sharing operations making money off of other people’s work might constitute a target for industry and government alike, but file sharing online is also done for absolutely free, through peer-to-peer software.
The answer to sagging business models effected by file sharing is not litigation and legislation, but rather to innovate – something big-industry certainly has the resources to do.
Open-source, crowd-sourced, innovative software, media, and hardware businesses already exist, and are already turning profits while creating local jobs. More importantly, they are opening up markets to consumers who can now become producers, essentially creating “wealth redistribution through entrepreneurship” rather than government subsidies.
These emerging business models prove that jobs, profit, and commerce are not impossible within the new, emerging paradigm people like Dodd work tirelessly against. It does prove, however, that the days the special interests Dodd represents can horde for themselves control over human creativity and the wealth it generates, are coming to an end.
The Battle Plan: By no means should people already engaged in anti-monopoly campaigning give up. People campaigning against SOPA, PIPA, ACTA, and many other forms of legislation represent the minefields upon a battlefield, slowing the advance of the enemy, and denying it access long enough for a counteroffensive to be mounted – but that counteroffensive must eventually be planned and executed.
Dodd’s MPAA “Copyright Alert System,” described by Wired as an “ISP search-and-disrupt operation,” will use the Internet and telecom monopolies to target file sharing. Previously reported on “mesh networks” would easily complicate the enforcement of such a measure. Also, as one keen Wired reader noted in the comment sections:
Too bad the MPAA/RIA know that more sharing happens from portable hard drives than through torrents. So this is a lot like closing the barn door as the horse is leaving…
He would elaborate in a second comment that:
Those file come from the same place as torrents, one person buys it, rips it and shares it. The funny thing is there are less options to get one file (maybe one person you know has it vs. hundreds of torrents) but when you borrow a hard drive you can get more files in a couple of hours than in a year of torrenting.
And indeed, for those looking to get around the corporate-fascist collaboration between government, big-film & record studios, big-software, and big-telecom, a portable hard drive network could easily be organized, expanded and used to sting back even worse than online file sharing already has.
However, such networks, be they mesh or hard drive sharing, are still only countermeasures. To go on the offensive against the special interests behind this campaign, particularly because they still possess almost unlimited finances and political backing, is to avoid taking them head-on and instead attack their supply lines.
We need not travel far to reach these supply lines – for we the consumers of their products and services constitute the sole source of their wealth, with which they buy their influence across governments and the media. Cutting ourselves off, thus cutting their supply lines and leaving them to starve, is as simple as boycotting and replacing them.
We can begin (and in many cases already are) boycotting and replacing them with superior, and more importantly, open alternatives. All things being equal, people would rather watch a free movie than pay for one on Netflix. One rather listen to a free MP3 than pay for one on iTunes.
By crowd-sourcing, crowd-funding, and producing free entertainment online leveraging improved, and increasingly cheaper hardware and software, such alternatives are already emerging. Campaigners against the likes of Dodd, the MPAA, and their SOPA, PIPA, and ACTA travesties, may also consider going a step beyond merely naming those corporations involved, and promote a full-spectrum, permanent boycott (and here), while promoting open-source, innovative alternatives.
Websites featuring open-entertainment could be organized by genre, or contain a variety to choose from. These could be open-versions of iTunes, Netflix, and Amazon, that run on ads, feature donation and referral buttons for artists, and more importantly, remain free and open for all. Live events could be organized and revenue raised for artists and organizers that way.
Design houses and studios using open-source software for commissioned work could augment their income by arranging training workshops and consulting services for other companies to switch over from expensive propriety solutions to open-source. The more people involved in open collaboration, the greater the benefit for all those involved.
Artists have and will always ply their trade for passion. Many are rediscovering the process of working for commissions rather than for royalties, and are using the open-sharing of their work as an advertisement for their commissioned services, live performances, and physical merchandise related to their intellectual efforts.
The arguments of copyrighted industry revolving around the promotion of innovation, art, and entertainment, as well as the creation of jobs, are already falling apart in an emerging, open-paradigm. People like Christopher Dodd whose blatantly compromised agenda makes a mockery of representative governance, embodies an industry and a paradigm that does not deserve perpetuation. Through boycotting and replacing it, by us all becoming open-producers and collaborates instead of consumers bellied up to the corporate troughs, let us ensure a deep enough hole is dug for them, so that when they finally are rolled into it, they never emerge again.
Captive Media’s urinal entertainment system shows ads on screens above each urinal and starts playing games when you pee Image: Captive Media
Finally, after decades spent wandering through the world of print, television, and the web, advertising has come home to its spiritual birthplace – the public restroom. Sure, there have been ad campaigns in the loo before, but Sharpie-scrawled messages on walls and band stickers on mirrors don’t count. What startup Captive Media has created takes the whole notion of making a splash to a different level. Higher or lower? It remains to be seen.
What the London-based company has built is a digital advertising display meets game console we’re calling the urinal entertainment system. Think of it as a Xbox, but with more urine and no game controllers. That’s right, it’s pee-controlled gaming, and the company just raised $700,000 from U.K. investors to keep its business flowing (sorry for that).
The urinal entertainment system, or UES if you will, is mounted at eye level right above the urinal and uses an LCD screen that merrily loops videos and advertisements until you walk up to the porcelain. Once you pause in front of the fixture long enough to unzip, it’s game on. Instead of using your hands on a touchscreen to play and pee at the same time (think of how difficult and unsanitary that would be), infrared sensors mounted below the screen shoot down into the urinal to detect the direction of your stream and feed that data back into the system to control the game. When your stream interferes with one of the infrared beams, the sensors can tell in which direction you’re peeing. There are even decals inside the urinal to help you aim (something that can’t be bad to have in even non-gaming visits to the bathroom).
There are five games that pop up at random on the UES, including On the Piste, where you speed down a ski run trying to hit penguins; Clever Dick, a trivia game which uses the direction of your stream to pick an answer, and Artsplash, a coloring game which I can only imagine is akin to drawing in the snow. The Captive Media website claims that the games make restrooms cleaner because “men are more accurate when they concentrate.” But if you’re concentrating on a screen while trying to improve your score, it seems just as likely you’ll wind up ruining your shoes.
Co-founder Gordon MacSween says the response has been “beyond his wildest expectations.” During the first night of live testing in 2011 in a Cambridge, U.K., cocktail bar, the UES was such a hit with a group of American servicemen that they spent much of the night in the bathroom trying to beat each other’s high scores, and coaxing others in the bar to head to the restroom to try it. That can’t have been weird at all.
Launched about a year ago at a London club, Captive Media has installed its urinal entertainment systems in 18 bars, hotels, corporate offices, and even a few private residences across the U.K., France, Spain, and Italy. The company’s next mark to hit is American bathroom users, who, while perhaps not in the same league as British pub goers by urine volume, still have to go on a regular basis. Expect the British bathroom invasion next year.
As you might imagine by the sophomoric tone of the whole idea, the games are a hit with guys. But according to MacSween, restaurant and bar owners are just as keen on the idea and are using the UES to advertise drink specials and other promotions on the screens. Cambridge bar Ta Bouche advertised a special on a house-created shot, and the bar reaped a 22 percent boost in sales of the cocktail, the owner says. But not every venue is in it for the advertising, some just want a gimmick to get customers to come back. “Lainston House (a five-star U.K. wedding venue) have the system purely for the customer experience, and because they know people will remember their visit and talk about it,” says MacSween.
And if you’re thinking guys get to have all the fun, Captive Media hasn’t forgotten about the ladies. But instead of toilet games (which would be incredibly awkward to play), there’s just wall-mounted screens to keep gals entertained while waiting in line. Though, considering how well guys have taken to Captive Media’s urinal games, it seems like lines are going to be a bigger issue for the men’s rooms from now on.