Aaron Swartz’s Last Gift: Site Launches Whistleblower Safe House & How It Works

In era of “most aggressive government assaults on press freedom,” new open source dropbox provides “secure route” for leaks

Lauren McCauley, staff writer  May 19, 2013  CommonDreams.org

Kevin Poulsen and Aaron Swartz working out the kinks of their open sourced safe house. (Photo via The New Yorker)

One month before his January 11th suicide, web pioneer and creative commons architect Aaron Swartz completed one last project—an “opensource drop box for leaked documents along the lines of WikiLeaks.”

Launched Thursday, Deaddrop is the brainchild of former hacker turned Wired editor, Kevin Poulsen, who approached Swartz with the idea. Swartz built the code for the project—one last gift to journalists and whistleblowers worldwide and the open-source internet community.

“He agreed to do it,” writes Poulsen, “with the understanding that the code would be open-source—licensed to allow anyone to use it freely—when we launched the system.”

As the Obama Administration continues their dogged pursuit and prosecution of press sources and whistleblowers like Bradley Manning and while the news of the Justice Department’s seizure of Associated Press records continues to swirl, newsrooms are frantically reevaluating their security procedures.

“With the risks now so high,” said Poulsen, “it’s crucial that news outlets find a secure route for sources to come to them.”

The New Yorker magazine is the first to apply Deaddrop technology—posted under the name Strongbox—as a safe house for sources and journalists, allowing readers to “communicate with our writers and editors with greater anonymity and security than afforded by conventional email.”

Named in reference to the spy method of passing items or information between two individuals through a secret location, the system works by “allow[ing] for a two-way communication between source and journalist, and not just a one-way handing over of information,” The Guardian’s Ed Pilkington explains,

“Sources are able to upload documents anonymously,” he continues, “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.”

In the era of “the most aggressive US government assaults on press freedom in a generation,” this open source tool will offer a measure of protection to those willing to speak out.

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Introducing Strongbox

POSTED BY   MAY 15, 2013  The New Yorker

This morning, The New Yorker launched Strongbox, an online place where people can send documents and messages to the magazine, and we, in turn, can offer them a reasonable amount of anonymity. It was put together by Aaron Swartz, who died in January, and Kevin Poulsen. Kevin explains some of the background in his own post, including Swartz’s role and his survivors’ feelings about the project. (They approve, something that was important for us here to know.) The underlying code, given the name DeadDrop, will be open-source, and we are very glad to be the first to bring it out into the world, fully implemented.

Strongbox is a simple thing in its conception: in one sense, it’s just an extension of the mailing address we printed in small type on the inside cover of the first issue of the magazine, in 1925, later joined by a phone number (in 1928—it was BRyant 6300) and e-mail address (in 1998). Readers and sources have long sent documents to the magazine and its reporters, from letters of complaint to classified papers. (Joshua Rothman has written about that history and the magazine’s record of investigative journalism.) But, over the years, it’s also become easier to trace the senders, even when they don’t want to be found. Strongbox addresses that; as it’s set up, even we won’t be able to figure out where files sent to us come from. If anyone asks us, we won’t be able to tell them.

How does that work? The graphic below maps it out; multiple computers, thumb drives, encryption, and Tor are all involved. We’ll be looking forward to what we find in Strongbox, with the same curiosity our first editors had almost ninety years ago.

strongbox-infographic-580.jpg

Graphic by Oneil Edwards.

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