NSA contractor Reality Winner was arrested even before the Intercept published its story this week on a leaked top-secret agency document detailing Russian attempts to hack last year’s election. Winner was one of just a handful of people who printed the document, which internet observers pointed out also had the printer’s serial number and a timestamp embedded through a pattern of printer-generated “microdots.” In an effort to validate the document, the Intercept also shared with another contractor where the document had been mailed—Augusta, Georgia, where Winner lived and worked, according to the FBI. (The publication has declined to comment on details of the case, besides saying reporters didn’t know who leaked the document.)
Earlier this year, I spoke with experts about how to leak documents to the press with less risk of getting caught. Advice included using a cryptographically secure leaking tool like many news outlets now provide rather than more traceable postal mail or email; printing and potentially photocopying documents, then scanning them, rather than sending digital files directly; and using “burner” phones and computers to communicate with the press. Investigative journalist Jason Leopold has also advised reporters dealing with leaks to study the Department of Justice “leak questionnaire,” sent to agencies responding to leaks.
It’s not clear, though, how much this advice would have helped Winner, since logs narrowed down the list of people who had printed the document to just a few suspects, and the government says Winner didn’t have the required “need to know” to legally access the document.