By Peter Kafka
All Things D
Technology gives journalists unprecedented power to track down information. And technology gives lots of other people the ability to follow journalists’ footprints. Just ask the Associated Press.
Now the New Yorker magazine says it can help journalists, and their sources, cover their tracks. It is rolling out an electronic tip box it says will give leakers and tipsters the ability to cloak their identity when they reach out to the magazine.
And it’s releasing the software that built the box, created by the late Web activist Aaron Swartz, via an open-source license. Which means that it expects and encourages other news organizations to build their own versions.
You can find detailed information about the New Yorker’s Strongbox here, along with posts from Joshua Rothman, the magazine’s archive editor, and Kevin Poulsen, the investigations editor at Wired, which, like the New Yorker, is published by Conde Nast. Poulsen’s post, which explains how he and Swartz collaborated to create Strongbox, makes for particularly good reading.
Strongbox isn’t the first attempt to create a secure tipbox in recent years. In 2011, following WikiLeaks’ rise to prominence, The Wall Street Journal launched SafeHouse, a similar project. But the security experts quickly pointed out flaws in the Journal’s technology, and if the paper has gotten much use out of it since then, they’re not saying (the Journal, like this website, is owned by News Corp.).
I have zero ability to judge the relative security of the New Yorker’s box, but I’m sure that Swartz’s connection to the project will reassure lots of people. (For the record, both the Journal and the New Yorker’s boxes use Tor, an anonymizing Web tool/network.)
I can try to explain the basic principle behind the box, though: It’s supposed to allow anyone to submit a letter, document or any thing else, while keeping their identity secret. If a New Yorker staffer wants to try to contact the tipster, they can reach out through an electronic version of a dead drop, which gives the original tipster the ability to re-contact the magazine.
The New Yorker had planned on introducing Strongbox last month, but delayed it for technical tweaks. But the last week’s revelations about the federal government’s surveillance of the Associated Press helps illustrate the need for the tech, says Poulsen.
“We see governments around the world putting a lot of resources into tracking journalistic sources,” he says. “So far, technology has been an ally not of journalists but the government.”