Technology

Introducing The Saturday Paper’s SecureDrop – an encrypted system for secure communications with whistleblowers. By Erik Jensen.

Whistleblowing to The Saturday Paper via SecureDrop

A diagram of the SecureDrop system, drawn by Schwartz Media’s director of technology.
Credit: Owen Kelly

In an office a few doors from mine, two laptops sit with the batteries broken out of their backs. The cavity around both screens has been jimmied open and the cameras and wi-fi smashed out. The microphone and speakers are gone, too.

One laptop is marked “Journalist Workstation”. The other is marked “Secure Viewing Station”. These are the basis of Schwartz Media’s SecureDrop – a system through which anonymous sources can communicate with journalists on The Saturday Paper and The Monthly. Beside them is an offline printer. 

The reality of encryption is both extremely complex and technologically archaic. These components are defined by what they won’t do. They won’t interact with our servers, won’t communicate with the internet. Their limitations are their security. 

The purpose of this system is to protect the identity of whistleblowers, to allow sources to share with us documents while remaining entirely anonymous. SecureDrop combines a number of tools to disguise the identity of people sharing material they might be compelled to otherwise leave unshared. It is as rigorous a system of source encryption as has ever been built.

 

This story begins in San Francisco. It begins when Kevin Poulsen, the editor of Wired, asked a gifted coder named Aaron Swartz to build him a system by which documents might be securely leaked to journalists. 

“I knew him as a programmer and an activist,” Poulsen wrote later, “a member of a fairly small tribe with the skills to turn ideas into code – another word for action – and the sensibility to understand instantly what I was looking for: a slightly safer way for journalists and their anonymous sources to communicate.”

Swartz came from the internet of idealism. He believed in good. He was a servant to the virtue of information. From the start, his system was open source. Everyone could use its code. Swartz worked not for companies but for ideas. It is by happy accident that our organisation shares with him a form of the same surname.

As Swartz worked on this system, he also faced trial over copyright activism. A prison term of 50 years waited for downloading a cache of academic articles with the intent of freely sharing them. By the time Condé Nast launched his secure communication system – for The New Yorker, ultimately – Swartz was dead. Strongbox went live in the wake of his suicide, in the hollow of a dream.

 

Swartz’s code has developed in his absence. It has been tested and refined. The system he called DeadDrop, which became Strongbox, is now SecureDrop.

Owen Kelly, who is Schwartz Media’s director of technology and who set up a SecureDrop for The Saturday Paper and The Monthly, explains the system this way:

“SecureDrop runs on a physical server located in our building, and under our control. It has its own internet connection, and is completely isolated from our other network. The only way to connect to SecureDrop is using Tor. Tor is software designed to enable anonymous communication.

“Tor consists of a network of computers that pass traffic around each other, before the traffic reaches the internet. Websites can also exist solely inside the Tor network, making them and their users very hard to track.

“When a whistleblower visits SecureDrop they are given a long seven- to 10-word codename. After that, they can upload any number of documents, which are encrypted and stored on the SecureDrop server. The key to decrypt the documents is stored on an isolated computer that has never, and can never, connect to a network – it’s what is known as ‘air gapped’.

“Messages sent to SecureDrop will be downloaded to an encrypted USB, and moved to the air-gapped computer. Then they are decrypted on the air-gapped computer.

“The journalist can respond to the whistleblower by leaving them a message in SecureDrop. If the whistleblower returns with their codename they can see the message and choose to respond or submit more documents.”

 

We live in the age of the leak. Information is shared as it has never been before. But it is also an age in which whistleblowers are ruthlessly prosecuted. Chelsea Manning remains in prison after sharing the Afghan war logs and other United States cables. Edward Snowden remains exiled to Russia after leaking classified documents from the National Security Agency. 

In Australia, whistleblowers are offered no robust legal protections. Legislation is spiked with threats to them. Courts can pursue their identities, as can police.

But whistleblowing is vital to the health of our democracy. It is only through leaks that we truly know our institutions. Too much information is hidden. The cottonwool of obfuscation pads governments and their departments. Lies live under it.

Since The Saturday Paper launched, we have dealt with whistleblowers, especially in stories about offshore detention, an issue pasted with opacity by successive governments. These whistleblowers have been offered absolute confidentiality by our journalists. SecureDrop makes this confidentiality even stronger, weaves it into the very means of communication. With it, we hope to bring readers new truths.

 

Alongside SecureDrop, there are three alternative methods of secure communication with The Saturday Paper. They are Ricochet, Signal and PGP. 

Ricochet is the easiest to get started. You download the app, and add The Saturday Paper’s contact from thesaturdaypaper.com.au/tips. Signal requires an exchange of phone numbers first, but is useful in situations where SecureDrop is too complicated or unnecessarily guarded.

The final method, PGP, is a very strong way to encrypt documents – it’s what SecureDrop uses – but it is easy to get wrong if you do not know how to use it. While The Saturday Paper has the capability to use this encryption, we recommend that only those familiar with the technology attempt to use it. SecureDrop will be an easier system for the uninitiated.

Our SecureDrop server is located at: od2icdth5ceo32wq.onion. For more information visit: thesaturdaypaper.com.au/tips.

With these tools, we hope to make our journalism more vital and its protections more concrete. We promise, as we wrote in our first editorial two-and-a-half years ago, to make news that demands this country be better.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 29, 2016 as "New truths". Subscribe here.

Erik Jensen
is the editor of The Saturday Paper. He is the author of Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen.

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