Category Archives: Aaron Swartz Day 2013

SecureDrop’s Garrett Robinson Talks About Last Year’s San Francisco Aaron Swartz Day Hackathon

garrettGarrett Robinson (Lead Developer, SecureDrop) will be presenting at Aaron Swartz Day, November 8th. (Reception 6pm – Speakers 7pm sharp!)

SecureDrop is a Tor-based open source whistleblower submission platform that was originally prototyped by Aaron Swartz and Kevin Poulsen (called “DeadDrop” and later “StrongBox,” when implemented by the New Yorker. It was taken over by the Freedom of the Press Foundation in October 2013.

I had a chance to speak with Garrett Robinson briefly, and get the scoop on the ongoing relationship between the Aaron Swartz Hackathons and SecureDrop.


Please tell us more about SecureDrop at last year’s Aaron Swartz Hackathon. You mentioned that it ended up being very productive for SecureDrop’s development.


Sure. Last year’s Aaron Swartz Memorial Hackathon, in November 2013, was an incredibly exciting weekend that SecureDrop benefited immensely from. I had just accepted the offer to take the role of lead developer on SecureDrop, and so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the event. Imagine my surprise when over 30 people showed up on the first day (Saturday), and around 15 on the second! More than that, many of the people who showed up were skilled developers and committed to the cause behind the project. It was the most productive hackathon I have ever attended, let alone been a part of leading (along with Yan Zhu, Jack Singleton, and many others).


Could you explain a little about why you feel these hackathons are such a fitting tribute to Aaron?


Sure. When we took over SecureDrop, the code that we received was barely complete and very messy – just enough to express the big idea. Aaron was a visionary with an endless supply ideas, and he seemed to be constantly churning them out, prototyping them to the bare minimum, and letting others take them on, refine them, improve them. Hackathons are like that too – a constant refinement, churn.

It’s like a dozen sculptors all working on the same block of material simultaneously. It might not look exciting to a casual observer – just a lot of people typing on their laptops, drawing on whiteboards, and talking. But to a participant, there is a kind of collaborative dance going on, and it takes refined processes and care to avoid stepping on other people’s toes as you go.

There is a great satisfaction in improving some part of the project and sharing it with others, hearing the collective murmurs of appreciation at a bug fixed or a bit of workflow eased. There is also excitement in going off in new directions, and taking radical departures, seeing those ideas come to life on someone’s smudged
laptop screen. I think that energy, creativity, and the inclination to dive right in and start doing are what make these hackathons a fitting tribute for Aaron.


Last year’s Aaron Swartz Hackathon went so well that you’ve started up hackathons on a regular basis, to enable more folks to contribute?


Yes. Since the very positive experience at the first hackathon, we have continued hosting regular “hack nights” approximately biweekly, and have had several weekend-long hackathons. This is always a great time for all of the core developers to get together. We debate things, show each other the cool stuff we’ve been working on, do code reviews together, which makes them much more efficient and effective, and just joke around and socialize. We also often get newcomers or infrequent contributors, and we introduce them to the project, answer their questions, and, if they’re interested, try to find a project that they can work on.

Now that I have recently joined Freedom of the Press Foundation full time, we will be having more regular hack nights. I am also going to work hard to establish connections and follow up more quickly and thoroughly with contributors, as a way of improving and expanding SecureDrop as an open source project. All of this was in some way inspired by the initial awesome experience that we had at that Aaron Swartz hackathon back in November.

Why is having something like SecureDrop so vital in a functioning democracy? You mentioned in your talk last year (linked) about how important it is that we have what you called an “adversarial press.” Could you elaborate a bit on that please?


In our increasingly online and networked society, information is incredibly powerful. We have seen an increasing willingness to crack down on the leaking of information, especially when that information may be damaging or embarrassing to powerful people and organizations. We have seen the Obama administration’s unprecedented crackdown on whistleblowers, with the most recent development being the Supreme Court’s rejection of Jame’s Risen’s appeal in United States v. Sterling, which sets the stage for him to potentially be imprisoned for refusing to testify against a source. SecureDrop is designed to protect sources and journalists, from these and other threats, to allow them to continue to provide the information that informs public debate and the democratic process.

Additionally, we hope that empowering whistleblowers and journalists has a similar counter-effect on those in power. If they cannot trust that something unethical or illegal will stay secret, they may think twice before doing it in the first place.

Remembering “Raw Thought” at Aaron Swartz Hackathon in 2013 In Buenos Aires

Aaron Swartz Hackathon 2013 at HackLab Barracas

hackaton-500x281The team at last year’s Aaron Swartz Hackathon at HackLab Barracas had a great event last year. They translated articles from Raw Thought with mates in Mexico, Guatemala, Chile and Spain, drank beer, scanned books, joined the inauguration and close of HackLab Florida, took sexy pictures, and streamed video while it all happened.

As Nicolas Reynolds, on of the Buenos Aires organizers, explains: “Last year we organized a local version of the Aaron Swartz Hackathon, teaming up with HackLab Florida, which was celebrating its inauguration that same day at Cooperativa Libertad.”

“It was a nice and quiet night.” Nicolas said. “We tested our then new book scanner and shared a few beers. For collaborative translation we used Etherpad Lite, an awesome tool to write documents while building consensus on them. Our main activity was translating selected articles from Raw Thought, Aaron’s blog, that we organized together with other hacklabs and hackerspaces from Latin America and Spain,” Nicolas elaborates. “Our favorite was “Democracia exponencial” (Aaron’s original ‘parpolity’ post in English), where he shows in numbers how an bottom-up assembly democracy would work.  It turns out that only five levels of assemblies composed by 50 people each are enough for 300 million people to self-govern!”

Nicolas and his team are hosting another Buenos Aires Aaron Swartz Hackathon this year.

Zaki Manian Looks Back at Last Year’s Aaron Swartz Hackathon in San Francisco

Zaki Manian from Restore the 4th SF explained how last year’s Aaron Swartz Day and International Hackathon in San Francisco breathed life into a small Restore the 4th chapter in San Francisco. Restore the 4th sent 4 programmers to the event, and came back with 4 more. “There was an enormous surge of grassroots energy after the Snowden revelations, and Restore the 4th was an attempt to harness that energy and direct it into directions that could create real change.”

One of the main projects that Restore the Fourth SF worked on during last year’s hackathon was the “Shame on Feinstein” campaign, which called out California Senator (D) Dianne Feinstein as a staunch supporter of Mass Surveillance. (Although she came around later in June 2014, when it was revealed that her own congressional computers had been compromised in order to access the classified CIA torture report.)

The other really important element of these civil rights focused hackathons the concept of “Weekend Warrior Activism.” “These hackathons are able to tap into an incredible resource of programmers that might already code 9-5 somewhere, in order to give them the ability to work on an important project over the weekend. This allows programmers to “code for freedom” during their precious weekend hours, making “incremental changes,” much like Virgil Griffith mentioned in his talk last year.

The latest mission of Restore the Fourth mission is helping towns deal with Police Militarization. RTF was already working on these issues before Ferguson happened, but now the plan RTF had already set in motion is more timely than ever.

“Militarization of police is a hot topic of the moment. Surveillance technologies funding license plate readers and facial recog software and mass surveillance is becoming a more local issue.” Zaki explains.

“We’re working on a municipal ordinance template, via a website and national campaign, that people in small towns and cities across the country can use to evaluate and put rules constraining how the equipment already purchased is actually allowed to be used,” Zaki explained. “We’re also working on some talking points and content that people can use, to show them how to do the research to find out what surveillance is already in your town, so you can then take action at the local level.”

SecureDrop’s Garrett Robinson and James Dolan – At Aaron Swartz Day 2013

Link to video here.

James Dolan and Garrett Robinson at Aaron Swartz Day 2013
James Dolan (left) and Garrett Robinson at Aaron Swartz Day 2013

SecureDrop is an open-source whistleblower submission system managed by Freedom of the Press Foundation that media organizations use to securely accept documents from anonymous sources. It was originally coded by the late Aaron Swartz.

The goal of SecureDrop is to simplify the process of using Tor and an airgapped computer viewing station (decrypted with a private key) to protect the identity of a whistleblower uploading documents.

(From video) Garrett Robinson:

“The impetus behind SecureDrop is that we (FPF) want to restore the balance between governments and journalists who want to communicate with anonymous sources. Historically, the U.S. has had really strong press freedoms. This is essential for a functioning democracy.”

Main page:

Project page on Github:

Form to fill out to request help with SecureDrop:

SecureDrop Development List:

SecureDrop FAQ:

SecureDrop User Manual: