Months after his suicide, internet activist Aaron Swartz continues to make the world a more open place. On Wednesday, the New Yorker announced the launch of a project he helped develop with them, Strongbox, a tool that allows sources to anonymously submit information, messages, and evidence with writers and editors.
Strongbox uses a Tor network to protect the transportation of data by redirecting packets through a distributed anonymous network in a series of encrypted steps so no machine in the pipeline knows where the packet came from before arriving. Because any computer within the pipeline can see no more than one hop in the circuit, even a compromised path can't be used to connect the information's source and destination.
Once a user accesses Strongbox, they can upload files or send messages using a randomly generated user name. That anonymous ID can either be used only once to send information to a writer or editor. The user, if they're willing to follow up, can use the ID to access messages and questions from editors and writers who might have further questions.
Within Strongbox's privacy promise, the site states that "Strongbox servers are under the physical control of the New Yorker and Condé Nast in a physically and logically segregated area at a secure data center. Strongbox servers and network share no elements in common with the New Yorker or Condé Nast infrastructure."
The final step to access the files involves writers and editors downloading files onto a thumbdrive, using a separate thumbdrive with an encryption key on a laptop without a harddrive that wipes its memory, and then accessing the information on a seperate machine. This allows physical air space between the network that sent the message, and the machine that actually opens the documents.
Strongbox is the first use of Aaron Swartz's Deaddrop code, which he finished in the month before his suicide on January 11 this year. The code for Deaddrop, as well as Strongbox, is open source in a fitting tribute to his work.
Aaron Swartz defended the use of anonymous communication on his blog years before in 2008, saying that "In 1787, when America's framers wanted to argue for its Constitution, they published their arguments (the Federalist Papers) anonymously. Whistleblowers have released everything from the Pentagon Papers to the Downing Street Memos. Anonymous speech is a First Amendment right."
Given the increasing usage of the Internet for everything from our daily communication, work, commerce, socializing, and an ever-expanding world of applications in our daily lives, digital privacy should be a huge concern. Especially after the recent compromise of the AP phone records, the importance of Strongbox offering journalists a new safer tool to protect sources is more obviously needed than before. And luckily for us, Aaron Swartz was tackling the problem before his death.
As Swartz said, "Here’s to anonymity — and more tools protecting it."