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A tribute to James Dolan, co-creator of SecureDrop, who has tragically passed away at age 36

Posted: 09 Jan 2018 12:48 PM PST

james dolan

It was with an extremely heavy heart that we recently learned our friend and former colleague James Dolan—one of the co-creators of SecureDrop and Freedom of the Press Foundation's first full time employee—took his own life over the holidays. He was 36.

In 2012, James worked with Aaron Swartz and journalist Kevin Poulsen to build the original prototype of SecureDrop, the open source whistleblower submission system, which was then called DeadDrop. Poulsen described James's role in the project's creation in the New Yorker in 2013:

In New York, a computer-security expert named James Dolan persuaded a trio of his industry colleagues to meet with Aaron to review the architecture and, later, the code. We wanted to be reasonably confident that the system wouldn't be compromised, and that sources would be able to submit documents anonymously—so that even the media outlets receiving the materials wouldn't be able to tell the government where they came from. James wrote an obsessively detailed step-by-step security guide for organizations implementing the code. "He goes a little overboard," Aaron said in an e-mail, "but maybe that's not a bad thing."

Beyond a couple references on our website, that New Yorker story is virtually all that is in the public domain about James's involvement in the project—and that's how he preferred it. James was an intensely private and modest person, and despite the fact the SecureDrop soon got a lot of attention when Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF) took the project over, he constantly insisted that Aaron deserved all the credit.

Yet SecureDrop would not currently exist without James, and he deserves all the commendation in the world for making it what it is today.

In January 2013, Aaron Swartz himself committed suicide as the US government was attempting to prosecute him for violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act related to allegedly copying academic articles from JSTOR. SecureDrop was an unrelated side project he was working on at the time. A few months after Aaron's tragic death, Kevin Poulsen donated the SecureDrop project to FPF, in the hopes that we could revive it and get it in a place where more news organizations could use it.

At that point, James was literally the only person in the world who knew all the ins and outs of the system, how to install it, and how to make it better. He had a high-paying computer security job at a large company by then, but I asked him if he'd be willing to come work for us so we could try to get SecureDrop into more newsrooms. We had hardly any money at the time, yet he immediately agreed—even though it meant taking an 80% pay cut. (Later, he would even refuse to accept a raise, insisting that we use any new funding to hire additional people to work on the project instead.)

He was our first full-time employee at Freedom of the Press Foundation, and quickly set out to teach other developers, contributors, and anyone interested in how the system worked. He poured his heart and soul into the work, traveling to newsrooms around North America to teach IT staffs and journalists in person how to install and use SecureDrop. He completely reworked the installation process, he pushed us to get independent security audits of the system, and he helped us hire the initial team that would take over SecureDrop once he was gone.

James's encyclopedic knowledge of computer and network security was a key reason why newsrooms were comfortable adopting SecureDrop when it was still seen as something relatively new and unknown.

James left FPF in August of 2015 after he felt the project was in a place where it could survive without him. Ever since, he had been working on the security team at Classy, a crowdfunding site for non-profit organizations located in San Diego.

We don't know why James took his own life; we do know, however, he long suffered from PTSD from his time serving in the Marines during the Iraq War. It was an experience that affected him in multiple ways. He often cited the Iraq War as his inspiration for wanting to help journalists and whistleblowers; it made him realize governments needed to be much more transparent and accountable.

Memorial services have not yet been finalized, but if you knew James personally, please feel free to reach out to us through our contact form, and we are happy to keep you informed of anything we learn.

Finally, if you suffer from depression or PTSD and are considering harming yourself, please reach out to Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Some of our best and brightest minds have suffered in silence, and sometimes keep loved ones in the dark. Please know that you are not alone.

It is impossible to overstate how fundamentally important James Dolan was to the development of both Freedom of the Press Foundation and SecureDrop. We are heartbroken he is gone, but we are also eternally grateful to have known and worked with him.

Urgent: Congress will likely vote this week on controversial NSA surveillance powers. Make your voice heard.

Posted: 09 Jan 2018 12:00 PM PST


With a controversial surveillance law about to expire, the House of Representatives is expected to vote this week on whether to protect the public's  Fourth Amendment rights to privacy or to allow the National Security Agency (NSA) to violate those rights by continuing to conduct warrantless surveillance on its own citizens.

Congress' effort to hastily renew the NSA's warrantless spying authority—known as Section 702 of the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act (FISA)—failed last month after widespread opposition. Now, legislators are trying again ahead of the January 19 deadline when the law is now set to expire.

The bill up for consideration is being labeled by certain members of the House Intelligence Committee as "reform," but offers no substantial changes. It doesn't close the loophole that allows the US government to warrantlessly spy on its own citizens, and it actually codifies some of the law's most problematic aspects.

If passed, the government would be empowered to continue its use of Section 702 to collect the emails and phone calls of Americans when communicating with people living abroad without a warrant or any suspicion of wrongdoing. The new bill would impose warrant "requirements" only for FBI agents and only when launching a "formal" national security investigation. In short, the FBI could still read data collected under Section 702 about Americans uninhibited, and would only have to apply for a warrant if it decided later it wanted to launch an investigation, rendering the supposed requirement virtually meaningless.

Much like with the health care and tax debates, Republicans have kept the exact language of the bill they plan to force a vote on secret from the American public, making it hard for constituents to weigh in. However it's quite likely, given that members of the GOP Freedom Caucus may vote against an extension of NSA spying powers, that Democrats will have the ability to kill the bill if it doesn't have robust privacy protections in place.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has so far not signaled which way she will vote, but if she recommends a "no" vote to other Democrats, it could swing the entire vote. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has set up a call tool to tell Representative Pelosi to stand up for the Fourth Amendment. Call on your representatives to reject any reauthorization of the government's surveillance authority that doesn't include strong privacy protections.

In an attempt to stifle debate, intelligence community has failed to provide even a rough estimate of the number of Americans whose communications are swept up in surveillance that targets foreigners. As Senator Ron Wyden wrote earlier last year:

Congress and the American people deserve a fully informed debate about this reauthorization.  And we can't have that debate unless we know the impact of Section 702 on the privacy and constitutional rights of Americans.

As long as this unconstitutional surveillance continues, people who care about their privacy—and particularly those who work with sensitive information like attorneys, activists, and journalists—are forced to act like spies to protect their communications from interception by their own government.

The Trump Administration, which has drastically escalated its crackdown on leakers and indicated openness to prosecuting journalists, would be granted sweeping surveillance powers if FISA Section 702 is passed without substantial changes. Trump has gone to extreme lengths to target immigrants, promised to surveil Muslim Americans, and has been accused of using the Department of Justice to go after his political enemies.

A Trump Administration with such vast spying powers has worrying implications for civil liberties. Any representative who claims to defend those civil liberties should vote against the bill. Public efforts successfully postponed a vote on the similarly flawed bill in December, and it's crucial we keep the pressure on Congress now with a vote expected this week.

Tell House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to stand up for our Fourth Amendment rights and call on your representatives to reject any reauthorization of the government's surveillance authority that doesn't include strong privacy protections.