The New Yorker Launches Strongbox, a Project Developed by Aaron Swartz


It’s at once terribly exciting and infinitely sad: This morning, the New Yorker announced the arrival of Strongbox, a new tool for receiving sensitive documents and messages from readers. Commissioned by Kevin Poulsen, the investigations editor at Wired, Strongbox was one of the projects that Aaron Swartz had developed before he committed suicide in January.

Swartz and Poulsen met in 2006, when Swartz, along with the other co-founders of Reddit, sold the online platform to Condé Nast and took root in a conference room at Wired‘s headquarters. Swartz wrote a piece for Poulsen about Kahle v. Gonzales, one of Lawrence Lessig’s legal battles in the larger fight for copyright freedom, after which Poulsen asked Swartz to develop a secure-submission tool.

“He agreed to do it with the understanding that the code would be open-source–licensed to allow anyone to use it freely–when we launched the system,” Poulsen wrote in a piece published this morning for the New Yorker.

Though other projects have tried to provide safe passage for the “leaking” of sensitive information–Wikileaks, for example, or the Wall Street Journal‘s SafeHouse–none have gone as far as Strongbox, according to Andy Sellars, a staff attorney at the Digital Media Law Project and fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

“[Strongbox] limits the ability of third parties to see what content is being exchanged between a journalist and their source,” Sellars said. “In addition to the strong cryptography it provides, it removes a lot of the intermediaries that would have been in a position to report to the government where a reporter’s sourcing is coming from.”

It’s an issue that was no doubt highlighted by this week’s revelation that the feds had seized AP phone records.

Before his death at age 27, Swartz had been involved in a number of projects that married law, freedom of information, and technology, one of them being RECAP, an online tool that allows people to download and disseminate court records for free.

“My impression of Aaron is that he cared a great deal about civil rights and civil liberties. He was also a guy who was uniquely informed by technology and law,” Sellars said. “He could see the opportunities in technology where the law did not yet provide protection.”

The rest of Poulsen’s piece, which digs into how Swartz approached Strongbox in this way, is absolutely worth reading, along with Amy Davidson’s explanation of how Strongbox works.