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Second Developer of WikiLeaks Inspired Submission System 'SecureDrop' Found Dead

Founder of whistleblower submission system, James Dolan, dies age 36

By: Jay Greenberg  |@NeonNettle
 on 10th January 2018 @ 12.23pm
james dolan was found dead aged 36 and is the second securedrop founder to die © press
James Dolan was found dead aged 36 and is the second SecureDrop founder to die

The co-founder of Whistleblower submission system SecureDrop has been found dead aged just 36 years old.

James Dolan, a former Marine and co-creator of the Wikileaks-inspired open-source system, started SecureDrop alongside the late internet activist Aaron Swartz and journalist Kevin Poulsen.

The system was designed to allow whistleblowers and journalists to securely transfer sensitive information and documents.

First deployed as StrongBox with The New Yorker, organizations such as the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Associated Press, and Gizmodo Media Group have all come to rely on SecureDrop which has become invaluable as a tool for reporters.

The Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF), for which Dolan had previously worked, made the announcement in an article on the organization’s website on Tuesday that reported Dolan had died of a suspected suicide, according to police reports.

aaron swartz was also found dead in 2013 © press
Aaron Swartz was also found dead in 2013

According to the Daily Dot, the announcement triggered an outpouring of heartfelt tributes from both journalists and activists, among them the organization’s executive director Trevor Timm who tweeted that Dolan was “an amazing talent and a wonderful person [who] will be sorely missed.”

Dolan first worked on the SecureDrop prototype—which at the time was called DeadDrop—in 2012 with Swartz and Poulsen, who is now an editor at WIRED.

The system allows media organizations to securely accept document submissions from anonymous sources and has become a staple facility for major journalistic publications like the New York Times and Washington Post.

When Swartz took his own life in 2013 at age 26, Dolan was considered the only technical mind with a full understanding of the program.

He joined FPF and reworked the installation process, helping newsrooms across the country integrate the technology.

Dolan is reported to have often cited his experience as a marine in the Iraq War as a major motivation in enabling radical transparency and government accountability by helping journalists and whistleblowers connect.

According to Gizmodo, Dolan joined the Freedom of the Press Foundation to maintain SecureDrop after co-creator Aaron Swartz took his life in 2013 at age 26, as pressure mounted in a federal investigation against him that many felt was overzealous.

wikileaks announced james dolan s death on their twitter © press
Wikileaks announced James Dolan's death on their Twitter

Aaron Swartz was found dead in New York in 2013 ages just 26 years old.

Wired reports: When he was 14 years old, Aaron helped develop the RSS standard; he went on to found Infogami, which became part of Reddit.

But more than anything Aaron was a coder with a conscience: a tireless and talented hacker who poured his energy into issues like network neutrality, copyright reform, and information freedom.

Among countless causes, he worked with Larry Lessig at the launch of the Creative Commons, architected the Internet Archive’s free public catalog of books, OpenLibrary.org, and in 2010 founded Demand Progress, a non-profit group that helped drive successful grassroots opposition to SOPA last year.

"Aaron was steadfast in his dedication to building a better and open world," writes Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle.

“He is among the best spirits of the Internet generation. I am crushed by his loss, but will continue to be enlightened by his work and dedication.”

In 2006 Aaron was part of a small team that sold Reddit to Condé Nast, Wired's parent company.

He faced a looming federal criminal trial in Boston on hacking and fraud charges, over a headstrong stunt in which he arranged to download millions of academic articles from the JSTOR subscription database for free from September 2010 to January 2011, with plans to release them to the public.

JSTOR provides searchable, digitized copies of academic journals online. MIT had a subscription to the database, so Aaron brought a laptop onto MIT's campus, plugged it into the student network and ran a script called keepgrabbing.py that aggressively – and at times disruptively – downloaded one article after another.

When MIT tried to block the downloads, a cat-and-mouse game ensued, culminating in Swartz entering a networking closet on the campus, secretly wiring up an Acer laptop to the network, and leaving it there hidden under a box.

A member of MIT's tech staff discovered it, and Aaron was arrested by campus police when he returned to pick up the machine.

The JSTOR hack was not Aaron's first experiment in liberating costly public documents.

In 2008, the federal court system briefly allowed free access to its court records system, Pacer, which normally charged the public eight cents per page.

The free access was only available from computers at 17 libraries across the country, so Aaron went to one of them and installed a small PERL script he had written that cycled sequentially through case numbers, requesting a new document from Pacer every three seconds, and uploading it to the cloud.

Aaron pulled nearly 20 million pages of public court documents, which are now available for free on the Internet Archive.

The FBI investigated that hack, but in the end, no charges were filed.

Aaron wasn’t so lucky with the JSTOR matter.

The case was picked up by Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Heymann in Boston, the cybercrime prosecutor who won a record 20-year prison stretch for TJX hacker Albert Gonzalez.

Heymann indicted Aaron on 13 counts of wire fraud, computer intrusion, and reckless damage.

The case has been wending through pre-trial motions for 18 months and was set for jury trial on April 1.

Larry Lessig, who worked closely with Aaron for years, disapproves of Aaron's JSTOR hack.

But in the painful aftermath of Aaron's death, Lessig faults the government for pursuing Aaron with such vigor.

"[Aaron] is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying," Lessig writes.

"I get wrong.

"But I also get proportionality.

"And if you don't get both, you don't deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you."

Details of any memorial services for James Dolan have not been finalized, but Trevor Timm encouraged those who knew Dolan to get in touch with the Freedom of the Press Foundation.

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