New Yorker Launches New Whistleblower Submission System, With Code Written by the Late Aaron Swartz


Executive Director

In an important announcement, the New Yorker has launched ‘Strongbox,’ a whistleblower submission system that aims to allow for anonymous leakers to digitally hand off important information to journalists. The underlying code, called 'Dead-Drop,' is an open-source project and was written by Internet pioneer and legendary coder Aaron Swartz, before he tragically died in January.

You can read the underlying code here and the details for how it works and the background, written by the project's manager Kevin Poulsen, here.

This launch comes at a critical time, as the AP announced just two days ago that the Justice Department had secretly obtained two months of call records for twenty different AP phone lines as part of an escalating leak investigation that has stifled press freedom.

Leaks, which are the lifeblood of investigative national security journalism, have never been under greater attack. The Obama administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than previous administrations combined, leading to a documented chilling of media coverage of critical issues. Several other broad investigations are still under way.

Yet, leaks have never been more critical to democracy, given that government secrecy is at an all time high. Countless times over past decade—from NSA warrantless wiretapping and CIA secret prisons, to secret drone strikes and unprecedented cyberattacks—leaks have exposed corruption, wrongdoing, and illegality in government when the flow of information has been stifled through other channels. In fact, virtually every unconstitutional action by the government over the last decade was initially uncovered by a leak to the press.

Yet when WikiLeaks was operating a submission system three years ago and published secret government information in the public interest, they were attacked by government officials, pundits, and sometimes even journalists. This, despite the fact, their actions were protected by the First Amendment, just like when the New York Times or Washington Post receives classified information from a government source in the physical world.

Hopefully this project will remind people that these types of WikiLeaks-like submission systems should proliferate, not wither away.

To that end, Poulsen, who has been managing the project, are publishing the underlying code (which can be scrutinized here) and have released the project under a Free Software Foundation GNU Affero General Public License, meaning it will be available to other organizations to use and improve. In fact, they are encouraging just that.

While many knew Aaron as a leading advocate for open access to scientific research he was also a dedicated open government advocate, who was frustrating by the cumbersome Freedom of Information Act process, despite using it frequently.

Time will tell if Dead-Drop is ultimately viable. It infrastructure still needs to be scrutinized and anyone who decides to use it should carefully read both the instructions and privacy policy of the organization running it. The Wall Street Journal and Al-Jazeera tried to launch similar systems shortly after WikiLeaks, but they faltered after technical and privacy problems. Other smaller ventures, as detailed in Andy Greenberg’s excellent book This Machine Kills Secrets, have not worked out either.

This leak submission system is the most promising since WikiLeaks, and anyone who supports a strong, independent press should welcome it. Let one hundred new WikiLeaks bloom.

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