Help Desk: Whistle-Blowing Without the Blowback

The ins and outs of leaking sensitive information

Help Desk

:( Help!

The company that I work for is doing something illegal. I'd like to share it with the media, but I can't afford to get caught. Any tips for a noncomputer whiz?

– Beginner Learning Online Whistle-blowing

"Whistle-blowers provide a great service to our society," says technologist Micah Lee. "In many cases, people leaking information to the media is the only thing that exposes and halts corruption or terrible crimes. But because of this, it can be extremely dangerous. Make sure that you understand the risks that you're considering taking, and stay safe."

Lee should know – he's the guy that journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras trust to protect their whistle-blower sources. You may know Greenwald and Poitras best for their work with Edward Snowden, but they're also co-founders of a news website, the Intercept, that highlights stories built on leaked information. Lee is their technology analyst, and he's agreed to field your question for us, BLOW.

He has good news: There's a software program, SecureDrop, built precisely for people in your situation. "If you want to start an anonymous and secure conversation with a journalist that works for the Intercept, The Guardian, Washington Post, Forbes, or any of the other organizations that run SecureDrop, then it's very simple," Lee writes in an email. "You just need to follow the basic instructions on their website to get started."

Not all newspapers and magazines have adopted SecureDrop so far. If your information is mostly of interest to local reporters, you might have to improvise. For newcomers to the world of online security, Lee recommends the following syllabus: Electronic Frontier Foundation's "Surveillance Self-Defense" guide and two articles he's written, "Encryption Works" and "How to Leak to the Intercept."

This can get very complicated very fast. As you formulate a strategy, Lee advises that you think like a leak investigator. Who has access to the documents you're leaking? Will you be one of the only suspects, or can you hide in a crowd? What online services are you planning to use to leak, and does it matter if they spy on you?

"Think about what Internet connection you'll be using," Lee suggests. "If your employer runs, and possibly monitors, the network, then it would be better to switch to a public wi-fi network that isn't being as closely monitored." If you decide to meet up in person, he cautions, you'll want to be careful about using your credit card or transit card, which can be tracked, and to be aware of cameras, which are "everywhere."

Finally, BLOW, consider that what you're doing might be illegal for good reason – for instance, if some of the information you're leaking could harm innocent people. In that case, it's on you to safeguard not just your own identity but also the data you're transmitting. You'll have to take extra care that all of your communications are secure.

Whistle-blowing can do a world of good, but it can also damage lives – your own and others. Plan ahead and don't blow it. :) HD

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Help Desk, social media etiquette, The Intercept, SecureDrop, Micah Lee

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