New Yorker's Strongbox: Can it shield anonymous sources?

Silhouette of a man at computer with screen, generic, graphic, hacker AP GraphicsBank

In a year marked by phone record seizures, hacked Twitter accounts and CIA leaker prison terms, media organizations are scrambling to find ways to protect themselves and their sources.

The New Yorker on Wednesday took a step in that direction, creating an online dropbox where people can send documents, tips and letters to reporters - in exchange for what magazine calls "a reasonable amount of anonymity."

The repository, dubbed Strongbox, was coded by computer guru Aaron Swartz.

Swartz, co-founder of Reddit and a free information activist, committed suicide in January while facing federal charges dating back from 2010, when as a Harvard University fellow studying ethics he allegedly hacked into Massachusetts Institute of Technology's computer network stealing nearly 5 million academic articles with plans to make them public.

Swartz, who finished the coding a month before his death, collaborated with Wired editor Kevin Paulsen, who said they were trying to address a lingering Achilles heel in journalism.

"There's a growing technology gap: phone records, e-mail, computer forensics, and outright hacking are valuable weapons for anyone looking to identify a journalist's source," Paulsen wrote. "With some exceptions, the press has done little to keep pace."

Strongbox uses a plethora of tools and tricks in its bid to shield contributors.

"The sort of technologies that integrate privacy enhancing methods are very good ... because in the context of whistleblowers in particular there are some very strong negative ramifications,"said Ginger McCall, director of the Open Government Project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) in Washington, D.C.

Anchored by Swartz's open-source code called DeadDrop, it relies on anonymity software, a dedicated server, randomly generated code names, encryption, a laptop booted up with a live CD that is wiped clean each time it's powered on, and multiple thumb drives.

"Strongbox carries forward an important tradition in journalism which we fully support," said Marc Rotenberg, the president of EPIC.

EPIC was a champion of encryption in the early days of the commercial Internet, but Rotenberg cautions that even encryption and other privacy techniques are not immune to security holes. He cited a CIA-funded venture called In-Q-Tel that famously acquired a firm that spies on social media in 2009.

Rotenberg says that EPIC has worked recently with the Federal Trade Commission "to help ensure that techniques that offer deidentification live up to their promises."

"The one caution that I would put out, that this is a high-stakes game and if the New Yorker is going to be using this technology, they have to be sure that the technology actually works. We've seen that a lot of efforts at deidentification don't necessarily live up to the advertizing or the hype, so if they're going to be using this service they have to be certain that it actually is going to anonymize, that it actually is going to provide that required anonymity for the sources," said McCall.

"This is important technology serving a social good ... along with this technology comes a lot of responsibility," she added.

Previous media efforts to provide a safe haven for anonymous sources have been criticized for failing to live up to their promises.

Both the Wall Street Journal (SafeHouse) and Al-Jazeera (Transparency Unit) tried to create open-source repositories in the spirit of WikiLeaks, which went offline in 2010.

However, both dropboxes have been assailed for providing neither security nor anonymity.

For its part, the New Yorker is hoping Strongbox will reinforce the collaborative nature of its investigative reporting.

"In the movies, you'll often see a lone reporter chasing a story, but investigative stories are essentially participatory," writes the magazine's archives editor Joshua Rothman. "Strongbox is a new way for the public to participate in that effort."

Additional reporting by Jessica Hartogs.

  • Stephen Smith

    Stephen Smith is a senior editor for CBSNews.com

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