How The Media Are Using Encryption Tools To Collect Anonymous Tips : All Tech Considered Technology has made for more ways to leak scoops to the press than ever before. And newsrooms across the country are taking advantage of that.
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How The Media Are Using Encryption Tools To Collect Anonymous Tips

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How The Media Are Using Encryption Tools To Collect Anonymous Tips

How The Media Are Using Encryption Tools To Collect Anonymous Tips

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So in these early days of the Trump administration, there have been a lot of leaks. For example, this weekend, the news site Politico ran a story featuring leaked accounts of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer lecturing his staff on the need to prevent leaks. As NPR's Sam Sanders reports, thanks to technology, we really are living in the golden age of the leak.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Back in the day, if you wanted to leak a big scoop to a newspaper, you had to rely on things like the U.S. Postal Service or pay phones or an underground parking garage. Now there's an app for that.

MOXIE MARLINSPIKE: Signal is a messaging and calling app, and it works just like any other messaging and calling app except it uses end-to-end encryption.

SANDERS: That's Moxie Marlinspike. That name is a pseudonym. Marlinspike is one of the founders of Signal, the premier app for leakers. I will let him explain just what end-to-end encryption means.

MARLINSPIKE: You can ensure that when you send a message to someone or you call someone that the thing that you write or say is only visible to yourself and the intended recipient.

SANDERS: Basically, end-the-end encryption means your messages travel to their recipient with a lock on them, and only the intended recipient has the key. The investigative news organization ProPublica actually has a webpage with a list of all the different methods you can leak with. It's called, quote, "How To Leak To ProPublica." Jeff Larson is a reporter there. He went down the list.

There's a file-sharing system called SecureDrop.

JEFF LARSON: Which is an open-source system that allows us not to even know who the person is who leaked to us.

SANDERS: There's also a special encrypted email called GPG. Larson says there are so many high-tech ways to leak now.

LARSON: We're living in a golden age for leaks.

TREVOR TIMM: We're living in a golden age of leaks, but we're also living in a golden age of surveillance.

SANDERS: That's Trevor Timm. He's the executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. That's the group that made SecureDrop. Timm says part of the reason all these new ways to leak exist is because it's harder now, more than ever, to really ensure that you're having a private conversation with a journalist.

TIMM: So it is very easy for the government, for example, to subpoena a Google or a Verizon or an AT&T to get a journalist's phone records or email records that tells them who they talked to, when they talked to them and for how long.

SANDERS: And Timm says the government is prosecuting leakers more. Increasingly, encrypted apps aren't just being used to leak to the press. They're being used within organizations, like the White House. A recent Washington Post article said that White House staffers have begun to use an app called Confide just to talk to each other because they're so afraid of leaks.

JON BROD: Sam?

SANDERS: OK.

BROD: How are you doing?

SANDERS: I'm good. I'm sure you've had...

I had Jon Brod show me how Confide works. He's the co-founder and president of the company. Brod says Confide does more than just encrypt messages. Little bricks cover the words in the message so you can never see the entire message all at once.

BROD: And the way I read the message is by wanding my fingers over the bricks, which unveils a sliver of the message at a time.

SANDERS: And once you've read it, the message disappears. I tried it. It was pretty cool.

(SOUNDBITE OF CELLPHONE CHIME)

SANDERS: Oh - I see it.

BROD: (Laughter).

SANDERS: And now it's gone.

BROD: Now it's gone.

SANDERS: (Laughter) That was so cool. It's like an invisible marker or something.

In spite of Confide's cool factor, some say the app should be more secure. One BuzzFeed reporter says she found White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer's phone number through the app, and other experts say Confide's encryption needs further review.

Confide app CEO Jon Brod told NPR the app does not show phone numbers or email addresses. And he said Confide's encryption matches a standard many people use for their emails. Whatever the case, Moxie Marlinspike from Signal - he says, overall, leaking going digital is good because it's democratizing leaks, making it easier for who he calls the low-level government employee.

MARLINSPIKE: If you're the director of the CIA, like, you don't need Signal.

SANDERS: Or maybe you do.

Sam Sanders, NPR News.

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