Category Archives: Journalist’s Toolbox

Barrett Brown and Steve Phillips Discuss The Pursuance Project

Barrett Brown is an award winning writer and anarchist activist.

Barrett Brown and Steve Phillips are speaking both Saturday and Sunday at the Aaron Swartz Day
San Francisco Hackathon.

(RSVP)

 

Steve Phillips, is a privacy developer who has now brought an incredible project to life, The Pursuance Project, with none other than Barrett Brown.

The Pursuance Project is more than software. The project proposes a much needed new way of organizing and sharing information. A new way of drilling down to get to the truth as a team of people. It can be a team of people in the same building, or scattered all around the world. All that matters is that a group of people who really care about a topic are joining together to do something about it.

Perhaps Pursuance could be one of the missing pieces we need to organize ourselves towards a better democracy.

 

 

 

 

 

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It’s not just about the software, it’s about thinking about new ways to organize and create positive change. Of course, this is not a concept that Aaron invented, but it is one that he lived.

So, let’s learn as much as we can about Pursuance, as quickly as possible, ahead of time, so that we can all get as much as possible out of our in-person time with Barrett and Steve on November 4th, when they demo Pursuance for the first time, at the Aaron Swartz Day Hackathon, on November 4th, at 3pm, and again on November 5th, when they go over more of the technical details.

I spoke to Barrett and Steve to find out how they met and how they pulled all this off in less than a year.

LR: What does Pursuance actually do?

BB: The pursuance system is a framework for process democracy. That is, it allows individuals with no prior relationship to self-organize into robust, agile entities governed via a “proceduralism of agreement.” These entities, called pursuances, in turn engage and collaborate among themselves to whatever extent they choose.

SP: Fundamentally, the Pursuance System software enables you to create a pursuance (which is a sort of organization), invite people to that pursuance (with the level of permissions and privileges that you choose), assign those people tasks (manually, or automatically based on their skill set!), brainstorm and discuss what should be done, rapidly record exciting ideas or strategies in an actionable format (namely as tasks), share files and documents, be notified when relevant events occur (e.g., when you are assigned a task or mentioned), and effectively get help from others.

LR: But is it simply end to end encrypted project management software? It seems like there is something larger going on here?

BB: A variety of existing tools for crowd-sourced research and secure communication will be implemented into the system. The ecosystem will be seeded with about 200 individuals and groups with a track record of advancing individual rights, state accountability, and robust journalism and information dissemination; each of these initial users will have the right to bring others into the system, and so on. This is not a content neutral medium; although any political ideology or combination of views is permitted in theory, everyone who joins does so under the condition that they oppose the drug war, police state, and national security state (although participants are free to interpret these issues broadly, and need not agree entirely on definitions or solutions).

This is a server-based ecosystem of collaboration and self-governance in which all participants will have equal opportunity to create and join pursuances: structured entities best thought of as evolvable organizational charts, with a wide range of customization available, as well as the ability for individual pursuances to link up in various ways; indeed, the ultimate goal of this process, which will provide a superior means by which to organize collaborative activism, is to eventually give rise to a sort of technocratic super-organism capable of confronting criminalized institutions and ultimately rolling them back.

SP: Aside from the specific software features, we are quite excited about having an ecosystem of like-minded individuals with shared goals and interests. The world needs an energetic network of activists effectively collaborating to achieve such things as prison reform, an end to the drug war, an end to mass, suspicionless surveillance, and various other issues. We need many researchers to assist journalists in finding the facts and getting stories right. And we need a great number of people to assist non-profits and political action groups in achieving their political ends. Pursuance amplifies these efforts.

LR: Other articles referenced its potential as a tool for democracy, could you elaborate? :-)

BB: As opposed to institutional democracy, whereby some artificial structure is generally implemented from above, Pursuance allows everyone the equal opportunity to define the exact terms of their associations with others, either by creating a Pursuance or by joining one that provides what they consider to be sufficient agency. Pursuances themselves may or may not involve voting; they can certainly be structured so that some, most, or all decisions, major or minor, requires majority votes by all participants, but others are driven more by free association, depending upon the ability of individuals to quickly and easily form new Pursuances with particular requirements so as to create a polity that’s sufficiently in agreement that participants are comfortable giving most responsibilities to a few people.

Importantly, the ease of creating, applying to join, and leaving pursuances will encourage experimentation and evolution, such that differing models of participation can be used and improved upon. One pursuance may be doing the exact same sort of work as another, but simply with a more regimented system whereby everyone is taking orders from above, with one person initially delegating power to others along a structure whereby no voting is done at all; another may involve each participant having the exact same degree of control, with decisions subject to majority votes or even requiring unanimous ones. By allowing every participant to employ free association, and by providing a structure that makes it easy to try different approaches to governance, we’re providing a highly customizable framework for collaboration that’s universal enough to be used for everything from running a bike drive to governing a political party.

LR: How did you two connect? Did Steve write to you when you were in prison?

BB: Steve saw the Wired article on my release, which went into the broad aspects of the project, and tracked me down to D Magazine, where he called me. We spoke and then he flew down to Dallas for a meeting. Over that three or four hours, we came up with many of the major additions to the basic idea that will ultimately be used; he happened to be perfect for this, both as programmer and project manager as well as a broad thinker with a great deal of knowledge relevant to this undertaking.

SP: Backstory: in 2015 I gave a DEF CON talk regarding my project CrypTag, which makes encrypted data partially searchable and stores it in any folder or file-syncing service. I started a non-profit around CrypTag with the slogan, “Secure mobile and desktop apps for activists, journalists, and you,” and with the 10-year goal of providing “data privacy for every Internet user”. I launched a graphical, user-friendly encrypted wiki/note-taking app — CrypTag Notes — solicited and got some great user feedback, and had some people using it.

But there were a couple problems.

First, I hadn’t found a significant number of people who thought they needed their privacy protected. Secondly, I didn’t have a means through which I could reach such people, and I wasn’t networked with that many activists other than a few I’d met at Occupy. Thirdly, since I have extremely broad interests and, thanks to the Internet, am aware of many problems in the world that I would like to see solved (if not help solve), I was concerned that even in the best-case scenario, if I could help fundamentally solve the problem of human privacy, that this wouldn’t be nearly enough in light of all that we face — global warming and environmental destruction, superhuman AI, Neoliberalism, racial unjustice, political bribery, technological employment and the apparent need for a basic income, and more.

But in the last week of March I was reading a Wired article, “Anonymous’

Barrett Brown is Free — and Ready to Pick New Fights” which reads, in part:

[Barrett] intends to build a piece of software called Pursuan[ce], designed to serve as a platform for coordinating activists, journalists, and troublemakers of all stripes. Pursuan[ce], as Brown describes it, would be an open-source, end-to-end-encrypted collaboration platform anyone could host on their own server. Users will be able to create a “pursuance,” an installation of the software focused on a group’s particular cause or target for investigation. The software would offer those groups the same real-time collaboration features as Slack or Hipchat, but also include a kind of org-chart function to define different users’ roles, the ability to host and search large collections of documents, and a Wiki feature that would allow collaborators to share and edit their findings from those  documents.

Brown has yet to recruit a team of coders or volunteers to launch  Pursuan[ce]. … But Brown has never had trouble finding followers …

I quickly realized that not only did Barrett have the public platform that I lacked, he also attracts and excites thousands of activists who *know* they need privacy protections because they are opposing the corrupt and powerful elements of the status quo.

It was also immediately clear that I had exactly what Barrett needed — experience building secure, user-friendly software; open source development; managing small teams of developers; and recruiting other technical people, as I was hosting weekly privacy hackathons at Noisebridge (which continue to this day), and I had recently moved to San Francisco.

I figured this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with someone like a Barrett Brown, or a John Kiriakou, or an Edward Snowden, or a Glenn Greenwald, or a Laura Poitras, and that I must take massive action to turn into reality this amazing possibility to work with with Barrett Brown to amplify the efforts of activists and journalists in order to help them solve as many of the world’s problems as possible.

I could not believe how much overlap there was between what Barrett and I wanted to accomplish, and how much we could complement each other.

So I brainstormed with a friend about the best course of action, which led to my aggressively reaching out to people I knew may be connected to Barrett, attempting to contact him in several different ways all in parallel, and successfully getting through just two days later. He said he was interested to have me involved, so I then flew to Texas, met twice with Barrett, began designing the software, then flew back to California. Two days later, Barrett emailed the others involved and said, “this is Steve Phillips based in San Francisco, and he is in charge of building the Pursuance System” — the very software I had been merely reading about less than two weeks prior.

That was just six months ago, and it’s been a hell of a ride since. (And of course, John Kiriakou and others are on our board of directors.)

My extremely excitement toward what can be accomplished with Pursuance continues to this day.

LR: Steve mentioned that you both were inspired one of Aaron’s posts, entitled When Is Transparency Useful? – could you elaborate on that please? :)

SP: I was talking to a friend about Pursuance, and he pointed me to one of Aaron Swartz’s essays. Part of what blew me away was this line and the argument leading up to it:

Imagine it: an investigative strike team, taking on an issue, uncovering the truth, and pushing for reform. They’d use technology, of course, but also politics and the law.

I found that this complemented Barrett’s thinking very well regarding what can be accomplished with a diverse mix of complementary skill sets, rather than having silos of just journalists working by themselves, and my experience with seeing tech geeks building more tech for geeks rather than solving bigger problems.

I knew that Aaron had co-invented RSS at the age of 14, that he had the foresight to create software that has become SecureDrop, and that he convinced Larry Lessig that getting money out of politics is a fundamental, but this is yet another example of Aaron being ahead of his time.

BB: Transparency is something we generally want to apply to institutions, particularly governments that are funded by its population and have a legal monopoly on violence, and specifically on government entities that have a history of misusing secrecy. On the other hand, the question of transparency becomes vastly more complicated when we’re talking about private entities. Within Pursuance, a given pursuance can be entirely opaque to outsiders, which in some cases will be a necessary defense against states and powerful firms that have a history of retaliating against activists and even journalists. But most of them, I think, will be highly transparent, both as basic policy and as a means of better allowing other pursuances to find areas where they might want to collaborate.

A good part of the concept behind Pursuance is to encourage not just individuals to arrange themselves into efficient entities, but also to encourage pursuances to eventually develop similar connections, sharing information, resources, and talent. This also goes for those existing non-profits and NGOs and the like that we’ll be actively recruiting; with this system, they’ll be able to easily create a pursuance presence by which to organize their supporters as well as finding areas of efficient potential partnerships with both pursuances and other institutions who’ve come on to the system. Those areas are most easily discoverable when everyone concerned can quickly see what other groups are doing and how they’re doing it.

Barrett Brown and Steve Phillips are speaking Saturday and Sunday at the Aaron Swartz Day San Francisco Hackathon.

Saturday November 4th 3pm -4:30 pm Barrett Brown and Steve Phillips – Building a Better Opposition: Process Democracy and the Second Wave of Online Resistance w/ Q and A (First live demo of the Pursuance Project!)

Sunday November 5th 2pm – 3 pm Pursuance Advanced Tech (w Q and A) – Steve Phillips and Barrett Brown

RSVP for hackathon here.

Non-hackathon folks: Tickets for evening event are still available.

The First Amendment Protects Journalists From Revealing Sources, Period

A concerning development occurred during the congressional hearings today on Russian Interference in the Election (link goes straight to testimony): Trey Goudy (a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence) implied that the FBI had somehow dropped the ball by not going after New York Times and Washington Post journalists for protecting their sources when publishing classified information in the public interest.

It was quite odd watching a room ponder the prospect of charging the press with criminal activity for what is considered standard journalistic First Amendment protected practice (of publishing classified information) as if it were some kind of allowable solution to what’s been going on with the current round of White House leaks.

This issue has already been decided on quite clearly by the Supreme Court in the Pentagon Papers case, United States v. New York Times, 328 F. Supp. 324, 329 (S.D.N.Y. 1971).

This has mostly to do with something Justice Gurfein referred to as a “cantankerous press.”

As Gurfein writes in his decision:

The First Amendment concept of a “free press” must be read in the light of the struggle of free men against prior restraint of publication. From the time of Blackstone it was a tenet of the founding fathers that precensorship was the primary evil to be dealt with in the First Amendment…

The security of the Nation is not at the ramparts alone. Security also lies in the value of our free institutions. A cantankerous press, an obstinate press, an ubiquitous press must be suffered by those in authority in order to preserve the even greater values of freedom of expression and the right of the people to know…it is not merely the opinion of the editorial writer or of the columnist which is protected by the First Amendment. It is the free flow of information so that the public will be informed about the Government and its actions.

These are troubled times. There is no greater safety valve for discontent and cynicism about the affairs of Government than freedom of expression in any form. This has been the genius of our institutions throughout our history. It is one of the marked traits of our national life that distinguish us from other nations under different forms of government.

Here’s Trevor Timm (Freedom of the Press Foundation) explaining this in a brief 1 1/2 minute video. This clip is from the upcoming film “From DeadDrop To SecureDrop.” (Transcription below):

 

 

Transcription:

The Supreme Court case that came out of the Pentagon Papers was one of the most important First Amendment cases of the twentieth century. It essentially is affirmed that newspapers in the United States have the constitutional right to publish information – even that the government considers “Top Secret” – that’s in the public interest, and that they cannot be censored, or what courts refer to as “the government can’t issue a ‘prior restraint.’

The opinion was written incredibly fast – from the start of the case where it went from the District court to the Supreme Court took only 13 days, which is incredibly fast. If you ever read the history of Supreme Court opinions, it usually takes years to get there. And so, all nine judges wrote separate opinions, but the core of the case still stands, which is that unless there are extreme extreme circumstances – which we have never seen in this country – that newspapers and journalists have the right to publish classified information. And because of this, we have learned so much more about what our government does behind closed doors.

Often, what they do, that is immoral and wasteful and illegal, we never would have known without this decision.

 

Snowden Explains “Opsec” – Operational Security for Everybody

Micah Lee and Edward Snowden, in Moscow, Russia. Photo: Sue GardnerMicah Lee and Edward Snowden, in Moscow, Russia. Photo: Sue Gardner

A few weeks ago, Micah Lee, Technologist for The Intercept and   Co-Founder and Board Member of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, went to Moscow to meet Edward Snowden (who is on the Freedom of the Press Foundation’s Board).

They had been in close contact online, since January of 2013, albeit anonymously, on Ed’s end, for the first six months.

Snowden took the opportunity to explain some technical details about what he has come to refer to as “Opsec,” or “Operational Security,” a collection of a few simple best practices for security that folks can use to protect the privacy of their day to day communications.

Engaging in Opsec helps protect one’s privacy, not only against the threat of what is, to some, the merely abstract notion of “government surveillance,” but also against much scarier threats that are not so abstract. For instance, abusive relationship victims, stalking victims, or children who are at risk of being monitored by pedophiles. There are many scary scenarios, all made possible by the current lack of basic encryption on most people’s emails and text messages. In these cases, being a victim of online surveillance often translates into physical harassment or abuse in the “real world.”

Using Opsec to “reclaim your privacy” may seem confusing at first, especially to those who have not realized that their privacy is already compromised daily. But as Micah explains, “This doesn’t need to be an extraordinary lifestyle change. It doesn’t have to be something that is disruptive. It should be invisible, it should be atmospheric, it should be something that happens painlessly, effortlessly.”

In the article, Snowden outlines some Opsec basics, including:

  • Using “Signal” (“Text Secure” on Android), by Open Whisper Systems, to encrypt your text messages and phone calls. It’s very easy to install and use, instantly, on your Android or iPhone device.
  • Encrypting your laptop hard drive, so if your computer is stolen, the thief won’t also have access to all of your private data. (Micah has already written a guide for this.)
  • Using a password manager (here’s Bruce Schneier’s favorite) that helps you generate unique passwords for all of your different services and stores them for you, so you don’t have to remember them.
  • Using two-factor authentication to provide an additional level of security on your accounts.
  • Using browser plugins like HTTPS Everywhere by the EFF, to try to enforce secure encrypted communications so your data is not being passed while “electronically naked,” in transit.
  • Using adblocking software, such as Privacy Badger, by the EFF.
  • Using Tor and TorBrowser to anonymize your browsing.

A few relevant quotes from the article:

On Tor:

Lee: What do you think about Tor? Do you think that everyone should be familiar with it, or do you think that it’s only a use-it-if-you-need-it thing?

Snowden: I think Tor is the most important privacy-enhancing technology project being used today. I use Tor personally all the time. We know it works from at least one anecdotal case that’s fairly familiar to most people at this point. That’s not to say that Tor is bulletproof. What Tor does is it provides a measure of security and allows you to disassociate your physical location…

But the basic idea, the concept of Tor that is so valuable, is that it’s run by volunteers. Anyone can create a new node on the network, whether it’s an entry node, a middle router, or an exit point, on the basis of their willingness to accept some risk. The voluntary nature of this network means that it is survivable, it’s resistant, it’s flexible.

Micah: [Tor Browser is a great way to selectively use Tor to look something up and not leave a trace that you did it. It can also help bypass censorship when you’re on a network where certain sites are blocked. If you want to get more involved, you can volunteer to run your own Tor node, as I do, and support the diversity of the Tor network.]…

On Whistleblowing:

Snowden: What we do need to protect are the facts of our activities, our beliefs, and our lives that could be used against us in manners that are contrary to our interests. So when we think about this for whistleblowers, for example, if you witnessed some kind of wrongdoing and you need to reveal this information, and you believe there are people that want to interfere with that, you need to think about how to compartmentalize that.

Tell no one who doesn’t need to know.

Micah: [Lindsay Mills, Snowden’s girlfriend of several years, didn’t know that he had been collecting documents to leak to journalists until she heard about it on the news, like everyone else.]

Snowden: When we talk about whistleblowers and what to do, you want to think about tools for protecting your identity, protecting the existence of the relationship from any type of conventional communication system. You want to use something like SecureDrop, over the Tor network, so there is no connection between the computer that you are using at the time — preferably with a non-persistent operating system like Tails, so you’ve left no forensic trace on the machine you’re using, which hopefully is a disposable machine that you can get rid of afterward, that can’t be found in a raid, that can’t be analyzed or anything like that — so that the only outcome of your operational activities are the stories reported by the journalists.

Micah: [SecureDrop is a whistleblower submission system. Here is a guide to using The Intercept’s SecureDrop server as safely as possible.]…

On Simple and Practical Threat Modeling:

Snowden: …You can drive yourself crazy thinking about bugs in the walls and cameras in the ceiling. Or you can think about what are the most realistic threats in your current situation? And on that basis take some activity to mitigate the most realistic threats.

In that case, for most people, that’s going to be very simple things. That’s going to be using a safe browser. That’s going to be disabling scripts and active content…And making sure that your regular day-to-day communications are being selectively shared through encrypted means…

On How Cell Phones Track Us By Default:

Micah: People use smartphones a lot. What do you think about using a smartphone for secure communications?

Snowden: Something that people forget about cellphones in general, of any type, is that you’re leaving a permanent record of all of your physical locations as you move around. … The problem with cellphones is they’re basically always talking about you, even when you’re not using them. That’s not to say that everyone should burn their cellphones … but you have to think about the context for your usage. Are you carrying a device that, by virtue of simply having it on your person, places you in a historic record in a place that you don’t want to be associated with, even if it’s something as simple as your place of worship?

 

 

Great Round Up of Journalist Encryption Tools From Aaron Swartz Day

Jenny Manrique has written a wonderful round up of five tools you can start using today to keep your sources’ data (or clients’ data,  no matter what field you are in) safe and secure:

Five tools for journalists’ online safety, privacy

by Jenny Manrique for the International Journalists’ Network.

From the article:

These are some tools featured over the weekend:

Onion Share

Developed by Lee, Onion Share lets anybody securely share any size file…”It is like Dropbox, but encrypted and reliable. As soon as the person downloads the file, it can be erased from the server and it’s no longer accessible to anyone,” explains Micah Lee… (Freelancers can find this tool useful for communicating with whistleblowers.)…

Tor Messenger

If you are familiar with the TOR Project, currently the best way to navigate online without leaving trace, you will be glad to learn that it recently launched TOR Messenger. The cross-platform tool facilitates encrypted chats on a variety of networks like Facebook and Gchat…

Keybase

Keybase is an open directory of public keys that you can verify through social media accounts… the Keybase directory can tell you who’s that key, according to his or her profiles on Twitter, Reddit, Github, Bitcoin and domain names…

Signal (TextSecure on Android)

Don’t confuse it with the Facebook or Linkedin Signal apps. This tool, developed by Open Whisper Systems, allows you to make encrypted voice calls, as well as send encrypted text messages, with your existing number and the contacts that also download the app.

OpenArchive

OpenArchive is a mobile application that seeks to preserve audiovisual civic media in a secure way…The app, currently in beta for Android, uses mobile TOR technology to allow people on the ground to send sensitive images without fear of being tracked…