Communication by Whistle

  • 11 June 2013

I have seen a couple of CrypoParty events. People gather. Some people like their tools. Some people like to communicate. Some people like their personal agenda. If you are lucky, then the three biases match. More often than not you are not lucky. This is where the party gets interesting.

Since PRISM hit the news there’s been talk about the mechanics of whistle-blowing. You need a source, you need its content, you need someone willing to dig through this content, you need someone who is able to write about this discovery in the right manner, and — above all — you need to protect your source (i.e. the whistle-blower). That’s the theory. In practice this neat list of requirements usually breaks down at some point.

First of all there may be no source. Good journalists (very rare these days) might find out by themselves though. Getting sources means to be trustworthy, which is a problem on its own. You need to be reliable and you need to have a basic grasp of operations security to get this right — on both ends.

Then there is the content. Not everything is useful (see, this is where the agenda comes into play). Provided you want the content to be published, it should be something that matters. Leaking the user’s manual of the local latrine in Mazar-i-Sharif is of limited interest for the general public. Sad, but true.

Provided you have a source and the content. What do you do? Well, reading of taking a look at it would be terrific. Few people do. Why? Because you have to understand what the content means and what it is. If you can’t tell the design plans for a nuclear bomb from your shopping list, then you should ask someone for help. You need additional experts (who also know what operations security is). That’s the toughest task.

Let’s assume you were lucky and you actually made sense of the information you got. Great! All you have to do is to prepare your findings for publications. Regardless if you use pure text, audio recordings or video, you need to put the content into the right form. You will need to explain what it means, you have to talk about the implications, and you must find a language that can be understood by your audience. That’s even tougher than to understand what the content is about. You have to be the translator between different groups. You need to find the right metaphors and ways to emphasise the meaning of the leaked information.

The last part is the most important issue. You have to protect your source at all costs! That’s how it works. True, some have seen so much that they don’t care any more. Good for you, but even the most desperate source deserves protection from harm, be it physical injury, mental stress or regal repercussions. Can you do that?

And that’s why tools, agendas or (secure) communication are a good start — but you need a whole lot more.

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