How To: Create A Hyperlocal Leaks Site

I wrote a how-to for the Wired wiki on creating a hyperlocal leak site such as JumboLeaks.

WikiLeaks has changed the way whistle-blowers, document leak sites, and media organizations operate. In its wake, other similar sites where users can anonymously submit documents are cropping up, many with a hyperlocal or topic-specific focus. Last week, The Wall Street Journal announced Safehouse; Al Jazeera has the Transparency Unit; Russia has Ruleaks; Tufts University even has JumboLeaks.

Leak sites, it seems, are here to stay. Here’s how to get one started.

Click here to read the rest at howto.wired.com

Just in from The President: The Days of Fair Trial Are Over

Obama on Thursday was recorded stating Bradley Manning’s guilt. “Innocent until proven guilty,” a phrase scarcely used by government officials in connection with Manning’s case, does not seem to apply here. Though there is extremely damning evidence against Manning, there has not yet been a trial.

Obama has continuously failed to properly address the Manning dilemma. While state secrets must be taken very seriously by the president and the government as a whole, so must the judicial process. So far, Manning seems to have been both punished and pronounced guilty with no trial whatsoever.

Obviously Obama didn’t make this statement in a written speech, but this is a point of even further concern because it seems that he was speaking from personal belief. If the president of the United States has pronounced Manning guilty, what hope does he have in court?

There is a very good chance that, given a fair trial, Manning would be pronounced guilty. But in that case, his rights as an American citizen would have been respected. As it currently stands, Barack Obama himself is participating in an already vicious attack on the premise of a fair trial and on Manning’s chance of receiving one.

While the information allegedly released by WikiLeaks via Manning has not dealt a very severe blow to Obama’s presidency, Obama’s handling of Manning is of increasing concern, especially for a president who stood on a platform against torture and for transparency.

We regress.

Tufts Students Follow WikiLeaks’ Example

A computer screen displays JumboLeaks, a leak site for Tufts University related documents.

Will Ramsdell sits at his desk, the windowsill in front of him cluttered with potted plants, a box of floppy disks at his feet. A beige PC monitor behind him pointlessly flickers between a bright array of colors. But Will’s focus isn’t on his plants or his technological work of art. His focus is on his MacBook, the only evidence in the dorm room that the 21st century has already begun, and Ramsdell and the organization he represents are part of it.

Ramsdell is working on JumboLeaks, a student-run document leaking site for Tufts University documents. As he works, he chatters on about the nature of the internet, the philosophy behind leaks, and what JumboLeaks is about.

JumboLeaks launched on April 2, 2011 with the release of what they say is a leaked list of companies in which Tufts had direct holdings. On the list was Monsanto Corporation, Goldman Sachs Group, and Lockheed Martin, companies noted on the site as “ethically suspect.”

As tuition-paying students, Ramsdell and the small group of five or six students that started JumboLeaks are concerned about where their money is going.

“In a capitalist society, money is a vote,” Ramsdell says, noting that universities aren’t democracies, nor do they claim to be. The hope for JumboLeaks, he says, is to push Tufts towards a more democratic system.

The reference to democracy-by-leaking draws a noticeable parallel to WikiLeaks, but JumboLeaks and WikiLeaks have their differences. Though JumboLeaks calls itself “a little Wikileaks for Tufts,” the goals of JumboLeaks aren’t totally in line with those of WikiLeaks. While WikiLeaks hopes to eradicate secrecy from governing bodies and totally eliminate the ability of these groups to conspire, JumboLeaks isn’t so extreme.

“There definitely is room for secrecy in almost all instances,” says Ramsdell, but “deciding what should be private and what should be public is almost impossible.” Ramsdell and JumboLeaks, though, prefer information – especially about the money they and their peers are spending – to be public.

The Leak

The most important part of any leaking organization, be it WikiLeaks, JumboLeaks, or anything in between, is the content of the leaks it releases. JumboLeaks received its leak from a still undisclosed source in the fall of 2010 and spent a long time deciding how to move forward. When the leak occurred, JumboLeaks did not yet exist. It was passed to what would become one of JumboLeaks’ founding members, who spread it to some trusted friends. The small group of students discussed various courses of action, but ultimately – possibly with influence from the extensive media attention given to WikiLeaks during that time period – chose the leaking model.

Hoping for a partnership with campus media, Ramsdell says JumboLeaks representatives met with editors of The Tufts Daily, the independent student newspaper on campus. The Daily chose not to break the story, though. The Daily publicly questioned the vailidity of the leak in an April 4 editorial, which stated that “while the motivations of the group were reasonable, the dissemination of what is clearly considered classified information requires rigorous vetting, which Jumboleaks failed to carry out at the time of initial publication.”

Ramsdell is confident that the document is legitimate, despite this criticism.

“We have conversed with this leaker and have every reason to believe that it is legitimate,” Ramsdell says.

Tufts representatives have repeatedly declined to comment on the validity of the leak. “The Glomar response,” Ramsdell says with a grin, opening air quotes: “We can neither confirm nor deny.”

In a statement via email, Kim Thurler, the director of public relations for Tufts’ main campus in Medford, said “in making its investments, the university strives to honor the intentions of our donors and to advance our core mission of educating students and creating  knowledge through new research, both now and for future generations. Decisions about our investments are made by those who have fiduciary responsibility for the university.”

Precautionary Measures

JumboLeaks includes a webpage instructing users who are hoping to leak something to use Tor, free software than anonymizes online transmissions. For a leaking site based in a small university, Tor is very complicated and secure software. Ramsdell says it is more security than JumboLeaks needs under current circumstances, but the organization wants to protect itself from future complications.

“I’ve securely deleted all of the original versions [of the April 2 leak] from my computer,” he says. “What we are hedging against is a full-on subpoena from Tufts.” Though JumboLeaks prepares for the worst, Ramsdell says neither he – the only member of the organization who has publicly come forward – nor other members of the group have faced any threats or retribution for the leaks. But the protections aren’t for members of the group, he says.

“Our first priority is to protect the leaker,” says Ramsdell, adding that while laws are somewhat ambiguous towards leaking organizations, which could arguably fall under the legal protections given to media organizations, leakers in general have often violated a legal agreement.

A Growing Idea

The future of JumboLeaks is unclear, but since its launch on April 2, numerous students from other schools have emailed the address posted on the site seeking advice about how they might start similar groups at their college or university. Ramsdell says he’s been corresponding with students at Bowdoin College about a leaking site they wanted to start there.

Public universities are required to disclose information about investments made with their endowment and various other finances, but private colleges and universities aren’t held to the same standards for transparency. JumboLeaks seeks to bring a higher level of transparency to Tufts, and as the concept spreads, other such institutions.

WikiLeaks has sustained itself by collecting leaks from various sources in the vast network of international politicians and others with access to such information, but Universities don’t have such large networks, calling the volume of available leaks and sources into question. When asked if there were other leaks in JumboLeaks’ possession, Ramsdell smiled.

“Glomar,” he said.

Click here to view a photo slideshow from the National Conference for Media Reform.

Wired.com Review

Disclosure: My father, David Dobbs, blogs on wired.com’s Wired Science section. For that reason, I’m not going to cover that section in this review, but focus on the site as a whole for the most part.

A screenshot of wired.com's main page.

Wired is one of the best-known news sources for technology and science news content. In both its magazine and online, Wired produces content covering an amazingly wide range of subjects, from diamond heists to hand-built cocaine submarines to  the science of happiness. Because of this breadth, Wired has become my one-stop-shop for interesting features and all sorts of tech news. Relating to WikiLeaks, Wired’s Threat Level blog has done a great job of covering WikiLeaks and many other privacy issues on the web.

An interesting aspect of Wired’s operations is the divide between the magazine and the website. Wired.com has its own editor-in-chief and produces the vast majority of its own original content. The magazine and the website staff also occupy separate newsrooms within the same building. Content from the magazine is confined to a single sub-section of wired.com (though some of the magazine’s headlines do end up on the front page.)

If the website was formatted differently, the divide between the magazine content and the web-only content would be a big problem, but since the site’s main page consists of a mix of the most popular or notable content from all sub-sections of the site, web users still get exposure to the bigger stories in the magazine. Magazine content goes up two weeks after the magazine is released, presumably to provide an incentive for people to buy the magazine, but once it is online it is totally free.

The best part of wired.com – and what makes it unlike nearly every other site on the internet – is the sheer breadth and depth of content on it. There are 13 blogs, more than there were a year ago (the “Playbook” sports blog is a new edition), all covering different things from serious news about net neutrality and WikiLeaks to more playful coverage of awesome tennis-playing quadricopters. This variety of coverage makes the site appealing to a very broad audience and also makes it a go-to news source for all sorts of coverage.

One aspect of wired.com that could be improved is their videos section. The videos in that section are so rarely advertised on the front page that it’s hard to find reason to even click on the section’s tab. The best videos on wired.com also tend to be embedded within a larger post, not stand-alone pieces. This is fine, but if the site has a video section, the quality and context of the videos should be better.

Overall, though, wired.com provides an exceptionally high level of content – both in quality and quantity – in an easily navigable and well-designed format. I definitely recommend the site, even to people who don’t consider themselves nerdy enough for Wired.

CAMD Interactions

At the Northeastern College of Arts, Media, and Design “interactions” event, professors spoke about their projects, past and present. While I am not a visual artist myself, I appreciated the brilliance of many of the professors’ works.

The presentation that struck me the most – likely because it was on a subject I know some of already – was that of Walter Robinson, a professor of journalism at Northeastern. Robinson works with students in a small, high-level investigative journalism class. As Robinson presented, I was struck by the great depth and scope of the work Robinson’s students are doing.

While many professors spoke about work they personally were doing (this was perfectly acceptable at such an event, especially within the visual studies), Robinson was sure to mention that it was his students doing the reporting for stories that were landing on the front page of The Boston Globe and prompting policy reform.

I got into journalism with the hope that I could show people aspects of the world they don’t see, either by choice or because they are being obscured,  so that they can make more informed decisions. Ultimately, I want to change the world. I realize that I probably won’t break the next Watergate or expose war crimes (that won’t keep me from trying), but I realized in watching Robinson’s presentation that I could make some serious progress towards these goals before graduation.

College, my father always told me, is a place where the whole world opens up and things that before seemed distant come within reach. Obnoxiously corny sentences aside, I felt like that was the case today while I looked at the projected images of Boston Globe front pages on the wall behind Professor Robinson.

Tufts takes the WikiLeaks Approach

Students at Tufts University have started JumboLeaks, a site that releases confidential information about the school’s finances, which they do not publicly disclose.

The Tufts Daily reports.

I’m going to Tufts tomorrow to conduct some interviews and get more information about JumboLeaks.

NewsTrust: A New Way to Read the News

Our class began exploring a news aggregation site called NewsTrust last week. The site essentially crowdsources media criticism. Users can grade articles based on a number of criteria, eventually giving the better articles better ratings, causing them to rise to “the top.”

The idea of a site that takes aggregation seriously (unlike Digg or Reddit, which provide more entertainment than informative information) is a good one. The majority of news readers lack background knowledge about articles, causing mistakes to go unnoticed and allowing misinformation to be spread (not intentionally, but because of a reporting mistake). A system that allows everyone to provide input and encourages fact-checking is a great tool in weeding out the bad news and providing a platform in which good news can be recognized for its merits and not its origins.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a critical mass of traffic on the site to allow it to serve this purpose with great effect. Not enough stories are posted and rated on a daily basis to provide a snapshot of all of the big stories of a given day in their best form. By this I mean that not every big event of the day has enough stories about it rated on the site for the best one to float to the top.

Though NewsTrust isn’t generating the traffic I feel it needs to effectively serve its intended purpose, I plan to keep reviewing and posting stories to the site. I really like the interface and the concept put forth here, and I hope to see the community grow and the traffic grow until NewsTrust can properly filter the day’s stories.