The way Edward Snowden communicated with the Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, the journalists who eventually wrote stories based on his NSA leaks, was by using encryption software. One of the most popular forms of encryption is called PGP, or "Pretty Good Privacy." Brooke talks to Gawker staff writer Adrian Chen about trying to set up PGP on his computer and how it should be the baseline for national security reporters.
Modest Mouse - Here It Comes
So the way that Edward Snowden likely ended up communicating with journalists was an email encryption program called PGP, an acronym that means Pretty Good Privacy. Gawker’s Adrian Chen says that every journalist should use this, quote, “annoying technology.” Chen recently wrote about his own problems with setting up PGP. Adrian, welcome back to the show.
ADRIAN CHEN: Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what exactly is Pretty Good Privacy?
ADRIAN CHEN: It basically allows people to exchange emails that are completely garbled until they’re downloaded, and then they can decrypt them on their computer. So the actual emails that are on, you know, Google’s server are just gibberish. And even if government or law enforcement gets them, they won’t be able to read them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, what makes it so annoying?
ADRIAN CHEN: You have to download the software. What I used was called GnuPG, which is an open source program. And it seems deceptively simple at first, but one of the biggest things was just small differences between what was going on, on my computer and what was going on in the instructions.
So I had a slightly different icon or options on a menu, and so then it takes an hour to realize, oh, I have the wrong version of this software, and I have to update it. And so, you have to do that over and over again, you know, and it can get pretty tedious.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how are journalists going to learn how to use this stuff? Is there a class you can sign up for?
ADRIAN CHEN: Well, there are a lot of guides online. One of the best is actually from the Freedom of the Press Foundation. But I don't think it’s gonna be really widespread until it doesn't require four hours of somebody's time to install.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So where does that leave us?
ADRIAN CHEN: The big push is for kind of more user-friendly things that people can just plug and play. The problem is there's been a number of high-profile snafus with these new technologies. The Tor browser is one of the popular ones that was just revealed to have had some kind of bug that let, presumably, the Feds look into users’ activity on it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tor is like the first name in cyber security, right?
ADRIAN CHEN: Right. And so, user friendliness is often traded off with security. And so, I think the, the key is just gonna be finding the right balance.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Soon after we learned about a lot of the government's intrusions into everybody's data traffic, we talked to somebody about how to safeguard one's communications, and he suggests snail mail.
ADRIAN CHEN: I think [LAUGHS] that's probably the safest way, or meeting in a parking garage. There's no way you can completely secure your communications, and there's just an infinite amount of things that can go wrong.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Adrian, you mentioned in your article that you’d had a bit to drink when you started trying to figure this PGP software out. Do you think that actually hindered, or maybe did it help?
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
ADRIAN CHEN: I think it greased the wheels, for sure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
ADRIAN CHEN: They should probably put that in the instructions, just -
- to keep you from destroying your computer in the process.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Adrian, thank you very much.
ADRIAN CHEN: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Adrian Chen is a staff writer for Gawker.
WNYC 93.9 FM and AM 820 are New York's flagship public radio
stations, broadcasting the finest programs from NPR, PRI and American Public Media, as well as a wide range of award-winning local
programming. WNYC is a division of
New York Public Radio.