Digital strongboxes won't solve whistleblower problem for journalists

Following the news last week that the Department of Justice had secretly obtained records of phone calls made by the Associated Press in an attempt to find an information leak, the New Yorker magazine launched an online scheme to receive sensitive documents and preserve the identity of their sources.

The service, called Strongbox, is based on a project developed by Kevin Poulsen, a Black Hat hacker turned magazine editor, and Aaron Swartz, who took his own life in January after an aggressive prosecution of his digital activities by the DOJ.

Strongbox is an elaborate system involving Tor, a network designed to preserve the anonymity of its users; multiple computers; multiple thumb drives and PGP encryption. While the Byzantine arrangement provides strong protection of the identity of a source, it removes an important element in the process: authentication.

"When you're dealing with anonymous sources, they're not anonymous to you; you know who they are," Dan Kennedy, an assistant journalism professor school at Northeastern University, said in an interview.

"That isÃ'Â an important part of the consideration that goes into whether you use the source or not," he added.

A system where anonymous leakers are dropping documents into a folder has advantages when government investigators start probing a story's sources, but it also creates tremendous disadvantages. "The government can't come after you to find out who gave you the document because you have no way of knowing," Kennedy said.

"That gives more protection to the source, but it makes it harder to vet the document because you don't know who gave it to you," he said. "It makes news organizations into Wikileaks."

[Also see: Three must-reads on the legacy of Aaron Swartz | Security through obscurity: How to cover your tracks online]

All sources, anonymous or not, have to be evaluated. That's impossible to do without context. "Knowing your source's motivations helps contextualize the information," said Mark Jurkowitz, associate director for the Pew Research Project for Excellence in Journalism.

"A solution that prevents the news organization from knowing the identity of a confidential source has value, but it's not an ideal solution because it is important to know the identity of the source to weigh the information," he told CSO.

"Information supplied by a confidential source needs to be evaluated, weighed and understood in the same way that information of somebody speaking on the record does," he added.

Technology solutions like Strongbox can be useful tools but they can't substitute for the give and take between journalists and their sources. "Technology is a tool, not a solution," said Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.

"The New Yorker is doing the best it can to provide one way for sources to provide information without leaving a trail, but I don't see this as a solution for investigative journalism more broadly," Wizner said.

In the end, the solution may lie outside the digital world and in the analog world of laws and courts. The DOJ's actions have resurrected an old legislative chestnut: shield laws for journalists, although it's unlikely that any shield law would have protected the AP in this case, as the DOJ claimed national security issues were involved in the affair.

"It is inconceivable that any shield law could ever be passed unless it had a pretty significant loophole for national security," Northeastern's Kennedy said.

Another solution for news organizations is to challenge the DOJ's actions in the courts. "If they can get a court case on the record that says this kind of search is an overreach, then that would tangibly strengthen the protections given to journalists," Pew's Jurkowitz said.

Read more about data privacy in CSOonline's Data Privacy section.

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