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New Yorker Launches Strongbox Source-Protection Service

New Yorker Launches Strongbox Source-Protection Service

Whistleblowers now have a secure means of anonymously dropping information to the press, thanks to the work of Internet activist Aaron Swartz. The system he coded has been activated by The New Yorker. "Strongbox is much needed, especially given the increase in wrongdoing by government that has recently come to light," said Paul Levinson, a communications professor at Fordham University.

By Erika Morphy
05/16/13 12:34 PM PT

The New Yorker has launched Strongbox, an anonymous system for providing the publication with information, based on the open source DeadDrop program developed by the late Aaron Swartz and Kevin Poulsen.

Strongbox can be thought of as an extension of the mailing address printed in small type on the magazine's inside cover, said The New Yorker. Although documents can also be sent to that address, it is becoming more difficult to use the postal service anonymously.

As for online messaging, anonymity has become highly difficult -- a key consideration for Swartz as he set out to build Strongbox, a process that took close to two years, according to Poulsen.

A Simple Service

Swartz worked to keep the service simple, and it was largely ready for launch when he committed suicide in January. He had been under intense pressure by U.S. government prosecutors, and faced possible lengthy imprisonment for allegedly downloading 4 million articles from an academic database.

After determining who owned the code and ascertaining that the service was indeed secure The New Yorker proceeded with the project and set the site live.

New Era

If it works as envisioned, Strongbox could be a significant development for journalism. It even protects publications from knowing who sent a document in the case of a subpoena being issued.

In the recent case of the Justice Department targeting The Associated Press, for example, officials reportedly obtained records of more than 20 phone lines used by journalists. Their purpose apparently was to identify the source -- or sources -- who supplied information for a story about the foiling of a plot to blow up a passenger jet, which the AP published last year.

"Strongbox is much needed, especially given the increase in wrongdoing by government that has recently come to light," Paul Levinson, professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University, told TechNewsWorld.

Certainly it will give The New Yorker a competitive boost in the market for scoops and exclusives, Rich Hanley, associate professor and director of the graduate journalism program at Quinnipiac University, told TechNewsWorld.

"Whistleblowers are more likely to submit documents because they know their identity is protected," he said, increasing confidence that their careers won't be compromised."

The downside, though, is that the site is still mildly complex, despite Swartz's best intentions, Hanley noted.

"That may have a chilling effect on people who are not comfortable with the technology," he said, "and [they] may avoid submitting materials because of it."


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