Aaron Swartz's Last Project: Open Source System To Securely & Anonymously Submit Documents To The Press

from the add-it-to-the-long-list dept

The New Yorker has announced a new anonymous document sharing system called Strongbox, that will allow people to anonymously and securely submit documents to reporters from the New Yorker. Other publications have tried to set up something like this -- often inspired by Wikileaks -- but for the most part, they've been full of security holes, sometimes big and serious ones. What may be more interesting than the fact that this system is being set up is the story behind it. It's based on DeadDrop, an open source system that was put together by Aaron Swartz and Kevin Poulsen.

Poulsen has the backstory of DeadDrop here, which is well worth reading. Basically, he and Aaron worked on this project on and off for quite some time, and it was only just completed a few weeks before Aaron's death. The full story is worth reading, though here's a snippet:
I wondered about this young tech-startup founder who put his energy into the debate over corporate-friendly copyright term extensions. That, and his co-creation of an anonymity project called Tor2Web, is what I had in mind when I approached him with the secure-submission notion. He agreed to do it with the understanding that the code would be open-source—licensed to allow anyone to use it freely—when we launched the system.

He started coding immediately, while I set out to get the necessary servers and bandwidth at Conde Nast. The security model required that the system be under the company’s physical control, but with its own, segregated infrastructure. Requisitioning was involved. Executives had questions. Lawyers had more questions.
Poulsen also notes that there were questions raised about the code after Aaron's death, but those were eventually sorted out:
By December, 2012, Aaron’s code was stable, and a squishy launch date had been set. Then, on January 11th, he killed himself. In the immediate aftermath, it was hard to think of anything but the loss and pain of his death. A launch, like so many things, was secondary. His suicide also raised new questions: Who owned the code now? (Answer: he willed all his intellectual property to Sean Palmer, who gives the project his blessing.) Would his closest friends and his family approve of the launch proceeding? (His friend and executor, Alec Resnick, reports that they do.) The New Yorker, which has a long history of strong investigative work, emerged as the right first home for the system.
Of course, Poulsen leaves out his own history here as well. As (perhaps?) many of you know, Poulsen was a somewhat infamous hacker back in the day who eventually (after avoiding law enforcement for quite some time) went to prison for some of his hacks. Since then, he's become one of my favorite journalists, writing for SecurityFocus and then Wired (and writing a wonderful book, Kingpin about some more recent hackers). While Poulsen and Swartz met long before Swartz was indicted -- and Swartz and Poulsen were indicted for very different types of activities -- having the two of them work together on a project like this is really quite fascinating.

The unfortunate part of all of this, of course, is that DeadDrop is basically Aaron's "final project." Given how much he accomplished prior to that in his short life, it's just one more thing to add to a very long list of incredible accomplishments, but yet another reminder of how much potential was wiped away by his suicide.

Filed Under: aaron swartz, anonymity, deaddrop, journalism, kevin poulsen, open source, strongbox, the new yorker
Companies: conde nast


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  1. icon
    Coyote (profile), 16 May 2013 @ 7:38pm

    Re: Kids, this REQUIRES trustable "man-in-the-middle"!

    Intellectual property is a legitimate concept, but as it exists in its' current form -- last I read, 75+ creator's lifespan, which is ludicrous -- it is pretty bull.

    That being said, I suspect you assume people [sorry, "pirates."] think that it isn't, and only choose to copy it [whoops, there I go again. "Steal." is probably the only word you'll recognize].

    Besides that, using someone's death to further an agenda of further copyright restrictions is just stupid and nonsensical. This can only mean good things, especially since it's the New Yorker -- one of the few 'old media' as you call them, that people trust [though I've personally never heard of them, so I cannot comment on whether or not I trust them.]

    Tor is not 'suspect.' Tor is used to legitimately, along with V.P.N. hide your net address and provides actual internet anonymity, something that is REQUIRED nowadays since the Wikileaks situation, to leak information and documents to get them out to the public.

    Regardless if it's used to go into the Deep Web for CP, the black market, etc. it also has legitimate uses. Stop pretending everything you do not like has no legitimate uses in today's world, and that the current networks we have are secure -- they aren't. I don't know why you assume Conde Nast is suspect; I suspect that's more from ignorance than actual awareness or knowledge of it, and just deciding to spout off 'this is terribibible! oh my gooooooood!!!!' rather than actually thinking this through.

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