Whistleblowers and electronics no longer mix: my story

Whistleblower art

My story for In These Times’ July edition revealed some tactics that whistleblowers of a national security bent might have to use in case they want to remain anonymous.

It appeared on the back cover, where the nonprofit that runs the magazine prints stories, not ads.

eBay entrepreneur could make the powerful and corrupt shiver

If the stories are saying what I think they are, one of the biggest barriers to doing important journalism—heavy security protecting your sources and research—will soon be less about cobbling together your own ragtag system and more about buying into a proven solution.

Let’s just hope they open the source code.

I’m excited about Greenwald and Omidyar’s new organization for its journalism potential, but even more excited about the fact that it’s getting into the “technology” business to produce tech for “new media.” That’s so incredibly vague, but I suspect it’ll be looking to fill the need for end-to-end-secure products that are easy enough for everyone to use.

For example, PGP (the widely used e-mail encryption scheme) works, and is fun for those who use it, but I posit that’s in part because it has such a small user base. It’s like you’re in a little club. And in fact, the not-insignificant setup work and learning curve can fuel a nice smug attitude with every use.

It shouldn’t be this way. If everyone encrypted their communication, corporations and governments wouldn’t be developing the huge profiles on us that they do. (If you don’t care about that, read this right now, then return if you’d like.) Lots of folks wish for the ability to evade the dragnet—and journalists NEED to—so I figured it was only a matter of time before someone capitalized on these gaps.

(Of course, PGP is only good so far as the NSA doesn’t have quantum computing, which it looks like they don’t at the moment…and so far as they don’t keylog everyone, or in particular, YOU. I hope First Look Media makes some software that detects and eludes keyloggers.)

What are the gaps as I see them? I already mentioned encrypted e-mail and keylogging. (OTR chat is pretty easy enough already.) To head off the potential fall of RSA, they could ramp up the development of elliptic curve cryptography. They could get into making whole-drive encryption systems that rely on both hardware and software-level encryption. I suspect they could develop software (free software as a loss-leader??) that helps folks pick strong, easy-to-remember passwords. They could use Poitras’ experience in mail drops and drive-wiping to create systems for that with less friction.

I don’t think they could compete with LastPass or 1Password. I don’t think they could compete with Freedom of the Press Foundation’s SecureDrop system for anonymous submissions. They could manufacture extremely cheap burner phones whose cases decompose in landfills when you toss ’em. If the battery were easier to disconnect, people would be more inclined to do that whenever they weren’t using it. No GPS transponder, obviously, but tower triangulation is a problem. I wonder if there’s software akin to TOR that could mask what towers your signal is going through. (hint hint)

Seriously, the opportunity for providing secure systems to journalists, in particular, is huge. After the past year’s disclosures, inkbloods are shaking in their boots.

In a few years, if journos like me are armed with the right tools, I suspect any sufficiently corrupt politician or corporate executive will be doing the same.

A judge rules

It’s not the last word, but a hint of rulings to come. Below are excerpts from the Times’ story about a federal judge ruling against one NSA data-siphoning program.

In a statement distributed by the journalist Glenn Greenwald, who was a recipient of leaked documents from Mr. Snowden and who wrote the first article about the bulk data collection, Mr. Snowden hailed the ruling.

“I acted on my belief that the N.S.A.’s mass surveillance programs would not withstand a constitutional challenge, and that the American public deserved a chance to see these issues determined by open courts,” Mr. Snowden said. “Today, a secret program authorized by a secret court was, when exposed to the light of day, found to violate Americans’ rights. It is the first of many.”

Though long and detailed, the ruling is not a final judgment, but rather a request for an injunction to stop the data collection while the plaintiffs pursued the case. It turned on whether there was a substantial likelihood that they would ultimately succeed and whether they would suffer substantial harm in the meantime.

But Judge Leon left little doubt about his view.

(Among other things, the judge stated the following)

“…it is significantly likely that on that day, I will answer that question in plaintiffs’ favor.”

I’d be at risk of re-posting the entire article if I were to paste more. But there’s more juicy stuff to be read—particularly about how effective the judge thinks the programs have been at thwarting terrorism—so head on over and read it.

SecureDrop in my house? You’d never know.

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I’m well on my way to the prerequisites to install SecureDrop, the new anonymous submission system for those who would receive and publish things that might endanger the sender.

Originally coded by the late Aaron Swartz with help from Kevin Poulsen, the Freedom of the Press Foundation has taken up the mantle, updated the code and provided instructions for creating one’s own system.

Long live the whistleblower.

Information anarchy as naiveté?

Below I’ve copied an excerpt from an Esquire piece mostly about Deric Lostutter, the primary Anonymous member behind “hive justice” actions in Steubenville.

I may not agree with the columnist’s every sentiment. But he implies a good question: what steps need to be taken before whistleblower-type reporting—easier than ever these days—sees the light of day? What does wisdom actually mean in this space? Surely governments need secrets to function. But aside from the truly vile ones, most secrets ride the fence as to which might offend the public. So we, reporters and editors, have to make the call; we’re judges and juries now more than ever before.

I’ve been thinking about all this for a long time, more than most journalists, and I still feel under-qualified.

Since the convictions of the Steubenville football players, elite media outfits like The New Yorker have reviewed the story and criticized the bloggers and activists for getting things wrong. And the real problem with these new democratic voices, as Marshall McLuhan predicted, is a function of the medium that makes them available to us. Many of the WikiLeaks cables showed professional diplomats ignoring corruption in the countries where they were stationed, for example, something that should shock only children. The Snowden documents have revealed more troubling secrets about the NSA’s espionage programs and the fate of privacy in the networked world, but Snowden himself spouts the same immature anarchist clichés as Julian Assange, that the governments of the world must stop trying to keep secrets and maintain order and simply allow “maximal diversification of individual thought.” The technology democratizes information, and a little bit of technical sophistication gives you a power that no twenty-five-year-old could have dreamed of before. But technology doesn’t give you wisdom. The information-is-free idealists depend on maintaining a certain naivete about how the world really works, which seems to be a result of lives lived online — sitting at home on their sofas, detached from a tangible sense of real-world consequences, they blunder into our worlds with results we cannot anticipate. This will not stop. It is the world we live in today.