Skip to content

Initiatives seek to protect anonymity of leakers

As governments crack down on leaks, new projects in the United States and Italy seek to restore the practice of secure and anonymous information drops.

Two months after Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for releasing a massive trove of classified US military and diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks, transparency advocates and journalists in different continents are launching new initiatives to restore the practice of encrypted anonymous leaks.

Last week, the nonprofit Freedom of the Press Foundation announced that it was distributing a leak submission program called SecureDrop to U.S. media organizations that may be interested in using the technology. The foundation’s executive director Trevor Timm said several major news outlets were already on board, and would announce their participation once they had installed the software.  The group has hired a staffer to help newsrooms with installation and training, which are scheduled to begin in November.

Earlier this month, the Investigative Reporting Project Italy launched an anonymous leaks site of its own, which will invite leaks from all over the world but will focus on those that deal with multiple countries and have a connection to Italy. IRPILeaks, as the system is known, will use technology developed by the organization Globaleaks – whose declared mission is to create an “anonymous, censorship-resistant, distributed whistleblowing platform” for use by media outlets around the world.

The projects are being launched amid a highly publicized crackdown on leaks by the Obama Administration. Emails by Fox News reporter James Rosen were searched without his consent by the Justice Department to reveal the source of a leak, and courts have ordered New York Times reporter James Risen to disclose the identity of an official who leaked classified CIA information.  Documents disclosed by another prominent leaker, Edward Snowden, revealed that the NSA has successfully broken much of the encryption used to protect sensitive data and routine communications on the internet.

The transparency advocates launching SecureDrop say that these political and technological changes have left journalists with little alternative to anonymous systems. “We’ve reached a time in America when the only way the press can assure the anonymity and safety of their sources is not to know who they are,” said JP Barlow, co-founder of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, in a statement.

SecureDrop, which was originally coded by the late transparency activist Aaron Swartz, allows a source to set up a persistent codename and drop off messages and leaked materials that are encrypted by the anonymity software Tor. The system eliminates the need for emails and other interactions that leave metadata, the descriptive information regarding telephone and internet communications that is gathered by the NSA.

The Globaleaks software adopted by IRPILeaks similarly relies on encryption by Tor and anonymous drops of leaked materials. A crucial distinction between both systems and WikiLeaks is that Freedom of the Press Foundation and Globaleaks will neither publish nor have access to the leaked documents, which remain fully under the control of the newsrooms that adopt the technology.

While transparency advocates say that the enhanced security protections and user-friendliness of the new system will help usher in in a broader practice of anonymous leaks, other experts question whether it will make much difference.

“The legal risks don’t change,” said Paul Rosensweig, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation and former policy official at the Department of Homeland Security. Rosensweig described the program as “a solution in search of a problem” because sources remain vulnerable to prosecution while journalists stay mostly protected.

The U.S. Department of Justice did not respond to inquiries about its views on the program.

News organizations such as the Wall Street Journal and Al Jazeera have already attempted similar anonymous leaks systems with little success, although transparency advocates say this is because their organizational policies allowed them to give up leakers’ identities to law enforcement. The New Yorker launched a program called StrongBox based on the same technology used in SecureDrop this May, and while New Yorker online editor Nicholas Thomson has praised the system’s usefulness it is unclear what, if any, materials the magazine has obtained in this way.

Other recent anonymous leaks systems have been more successful. Documents leaked through the platform Balkan Leaks to the Bulgarian outlet Bivol helped spark protests that led to Prime Minister Boyko Borisov’s resignation.

The Heritage Foundation’s Rosensweig said the anonymity of such systems deprives both journalists and their sources of crucial assurances that come from face-to-face encounters. Although the system does allow messages to be exchanged, leakers may sacrifice some control of how their material is used, a condition that has been crucial for leakers such as Edward Snowden who bring strong agendas of their own. For journalists, not knowing a source’s identity makes it harder to assure the authenticity of their submissions.

“It really strikes me as an abdication of responsibility not to try to verify who your sources are,” Rosensweig said.

In the view of transparency advocates, the government’s crackdown has rendered this principle obsolete.

“The new press freedom fight for the 21st century is to make sure reporters and sources can communicate securely,” the Freedom of the Press Foundation’s Timm said.

 Subscribe to The ICIJ Global Muckraker by email or get the RSS feed


Email newsletter Find out first! Receive ICIJ's investigations by email

ICIJ is dedicated to ensuring all reports we publish are accurate. If you believe you have found an inaccuracy let us know.