The Wall Street Journal quietly launched a WikiLeaks competitor yesterday, SafeHouse, a data dump and tip site for government and corporate wrongdoing. The attention-capturing power of WikiLeaks has often compelled reluctant partnerships with legacy media outlets. Founder Julian Assange's personal life and insistence on selectively handing out evidence to multiple outlets puts publishers in the awkward position of negotiating with a liable upstart muscling in on their territory.
SafeHouse will surely be the first of many WikiLeaks alternatives attempting to cut out the anarchistic middleman. Ultimatley though, data dump sites will have to attract the leakers themselves, but poor shield laws, insufficient security, and editorial bias may convince whistle-blowers to stand by the original Wikileaks.
SafeHouse (or what will surely be known to some as WSJileaks) bills itself as a secure document and database tipline, fully admitting that disclosed data is "the key to modern journalism."WikiLeaks has had a huge amount of impact on the journalistic landscape," said WSJ Managing Editor, Kevin Delaney, to Forbes, "They’ve been a watershed."
First and foremost, SafeHouse wants leakers to feel that there's no breadcrumb trail back to their doorstep. Emails contain traceable information, and given the U.S.'s aggressive search for Assange, government whistle-blowers can expect the full investigative powers of the federal government to hunt them down.
Thus, rather than an email attachment, files are encrypted and information is kept hidden from "third-party" partners, which is most likely other media institutions, analytics firms, and advertisers.
Additionally, uploaders can secure files with the WSJ's public Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) encryption key, a security standard that has so far eluded federal authorities hoping to break it. Finally, for the uber-paranoid, SafeHouse recommends traffic-masking software, such as Tor, which has been used by the likes of Chinese citizen journalists to disguise their location from trackers.
Problems and Solutions
Ironically, security expert and Tor developer, Jacob Appelbaum, lashed out at SafeHouse over Twitter hours after the launch, blasting the WSJ for a laundry list of amateurish security flaws and questionable tattle-telling fine print. Applebaum said:
"I’m sure they’ll fix this in good time, but to give you an example, I thought about leaking them all this information through their leaking interface, but I couldn’t use their interface with Tor. And I’m a Tor developer."
Even worse, the fine print leaves open the very real possibility of revealing sources, as the WSJ says, "We reserve the right to disclose any information about you to law enforcement authorities." In response to criticism, spokesperson Ashley Hutton offered a PR-rish statement that looked like it had been run through their legal mill more than once. After reaffirming their committment to sources, it said, in part:
Fast Company reached out to The Wall Street Journal for clairification on both security and legal matters, and received immediate notification that we would get a response, but are still waiting (we imagine their legal and technical teams are prepping a fuller rebuttle for later today and will update this post if and when that happens).
In the end, the WSJ is likely to get the security aspect fixed, since encryption might be as much for the safety of WSJ editors as it is the leaker. In 2005, federal investigators successful cracked New York Times journalist Judith Miller after nearly three months in prison for refusing to divulge her source related to the Vice President's aid, "Scooter" Libby. The Obama administration-supported detention (and suspected torturing) of alleged WikiLeaker Bradley Manning would mean that changes in political party aren't any indication of friendlier whistle-blower treatment. in other words, WSJ reporters have no interest in warming the beds at Gitmo for their sources.
Still, SafeHouse is only one leak site, and uncertainty over security measures necessary to dodge the government watchtower might spook potential sources into going with the old online stalwart. Leakers are often not prodigy hackers: Manning allegedly used a CD-RW and a Lady Gaga diversion story to download diplomatic cables, which were apparently as secure as an open cookie jar.
In other words, what the Wall Street Journal is missing is why leak to SafeHouse?
Media outlets have differed dramatically in both their interpretation and release of classified information. As such, Wikileaks has played a clever game of releasing information to several outlets at a time, fully knowing that competition for traffic rewards a race toward more transparency. The Wall Street Journal, especially then, would be a curious choice given its more conservative stance on government transparency. The Journal has refused WikiLeaks cables in the past, and has been the home of critical op-eds condemning Julian Assange as an "enemy" of the U.S. (including another one yesterday).
The concern that editors may self-censor information may be a weakness of newspaper-based leak sites in general. For anyone who has risked Gitmo-style torturous conditions to steal incriminating documents, why not submit them to an organization that releases to multiple publications?
Two potentially attractive features of SafeHouse are 1. A guaranteed spotlight for less-than-juicy stories and 2. A prudent choice for data related to life-endangering military operations. The public appetite for fraud stories is limited, meaning that there will likely be a parallel market for whistle-blowers competing to cut through the WikiLeaks noise. For leaked documents of shady pharmaceutical dealings or unscrupulous bankers, a megaphone like The Wall Street Journal might be willing to negotiate an exclusive for promoted coverage.
Second, past leakers have been concerned with the inadvertent casualties of exposure. A Wall Street Journal op-ed reports that Pentagon Papers source Daniel Ellsberg deliberately withheld diplomatic information because, as he said, "I didn't want to get in the way of the diplomacy."
In this regard, the WSJ's reticence towards transparency might be a selling point for those wishing to minimize collateral damage.
The market for both leak databases and leakers is just beginning to play out, and with this technology a new chapter in journalism begins.
[Image: Flickr user aturkus]