This week, to help insulate journalists and their sources from government surveillance, The New Yorker launched a new service. It’s called Strongbox, and it enables people to send messages and documents to journalists anonymously and untraceably. It was developed from code created by programmers Kevin Poulsen and the late Aaron Swartz. The New Yorker's Nicholas Thompson explains to Bob how it works.
BOB GARFIELD: This week, to help insulate journalists and their sources from government surveillance, the New Yorker launched a new service. It’s called Strongbox. It was developed from code created by programmers Kevin Poulsen and the late Aaron Swartz. According to newyorker.com editor, Nicholas Thompson, the two wanted to correct what they saw as an imbalance in the arms race between the watchers and the people they watch.
NICHOLAS THOMPSON: And they came up with this wonderful system. They built it they tested it and, and then Aaron Swartz committed suicide and eventually it it came to us, and we spent some time, modified it for the New Yorker and we’ve just released it today.
BOB GARFIELD: What does it do?
NICHOLAS THOMPSON: It allows someone who wants to get a piece of information or a message to somebody at the New Yorker to do so with pretty good confidence that it will be impossible to trace, and that even if someone were to come to the New Yorker and say, who gave you that, we wouldn’t know and we couldn’t tell them.
Now, that creates its own issues. We need to verify that the documents are real. So it creates a burden in the fact that we can’t figure out who sent them to us. But it also does have this benefit that if we don’t know, nobody can make us tell them.
BOB GARFIELD: I’m trying to apply Strongbox to the current situation with the AP. Assuming that those reporters had some sort of relationships with their source before any sensitive material was transferred, had they had Strongbox in place, would it have made any difference?
NICHOLAS THOMPSON: It’s possible that somebody could figure out that you had communicated with the source, but what Strongbox does is it certainly makes the transfer of information much more secure. AP reporters and their sources certainly could have transferred documents or they could have even transferred messages through Strongbox.
BOB GARFIELD: The fact that we’re having this conversation –
NICHOLAS THOMPSON: Mm-hmm?
BOB GARFIELD: - really makes me sad because journalists have to elude the prying eyes of the Justice Department.
NICHOLAS THOMPSON: For people who are really concerned about the state of communication, there are a couple of responses. One is to build new tools and the other is to ask for changes in the law and to make arguments about changes in the law. I think it’s a moment, actually, to be excited that technology has created this great opportunity for communication and it’s open source, so it can be used by multiple news organizations. I think there are an array of appropriate response to the moment, and this is one technological one.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Nick, we’re speaking at about 5 o'clock on Wednesday. Strongbox was announced just a few hours ago. Do you have any incoming yet?
NICHOLAS THOMPSON: I don’t know.
BOB GARFIELD: So it could be the Pentagon Papers awaiting you, or you have created the most paranoiac slush pile perhaps in human history.
NICHOLAS THOMPSON: Who knows? We have some combination of the Pentagon Papers and cartoon caption contest entries that people really [LAUGHS] don’t want to know where they came from.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] All right, Nick, thank you very much.
NICHOLAS THOMPSON: Thanks so much for having me on.
BOB GARFIELD: Nicholas Thompson is the editor of newyorker.com.