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Category: Politics

Article on Whistleblowing Tools in CJR

As a break from dissertation writing, I accepted an invitation from the editors of the Columbia Journalism Review to write an article revisiting last year’s Tow Center report on the use of SecureDrop in newsrooms. Here in the early months of the Trump presidency, all indications point to an incredible surge in the use of secure whistleblowing tools among Washington insiders hoping to contact journalists anonymously. A handful of my sources not only confirmed that this is the case, but also offered some sense of how they’ve coordinated this growing stream of information. Find the article here.

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Interview on the “It’s All Journalism” Podcast

Posting this a bit late, but I was invited to speak on the podcast “It’s All Journalism” back in June. They were curious about my research on SecureDrop and I think we covered the subject pretty well in just under thirty minutes.

You can tune in here:

And my report on SecureDrop is available here:

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On Placeholders

I enjoyed this piece on the recent meeting of Ai Weiwei, Jacob Appelbaum, and Laura Poitras in Beijing. There’s a nice anecdote on the curious artifacts that emerge from bootleg publishing.

Monday morning after breakfast, Ai, Appelbaum and Poitras walk to a nearby park. Along the way, they stop into a DVD store to try to buy a copy of Citizenfour. The store only has a pirated copy of the movie, they learn, with cover credits that declare that the film stars “Queen Latifah” and “Common.” Ai asks the store clerk if the movie is any good. “It’s okay,” the clerk replies in Mandarin, seemingly unaware that the film’s director is staring at him.

It’s funny, sure, but this variety of corner cutting has a long history in publishing, pirate or otherwise. Viz these woodcuts from the Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493. Notice the uncanny similarity between the cities of Verona and Mantua:

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And note the suspicious resemblance of these four fellows, each of them prominent enough, even today, to have their own Wikipedia pages:

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Media history helps to put things in context. These woodcuts are arguably as inaccurate as the bootleg DVD cover, and probably for similar reasons: to save time and money during production. In The Nature of the Book, Adrian Johns illustrates just how often books have been ‘pirated’ throughout the history of print, often with errors and inaccuracies that far exceed the shortcuts in the Nuremberg Chronicle. In the long run, I’d rather have a curio like “Citizenfour starring Queen Latifah” than an authoritative replica, just as many book collectors would probably prefer to have a copy of the Wicked Bible.


Images from Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe.

Hat tip to Prof. Andie Tucher for reminding me of the source of these woodcuts.

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Mechanical Counterlegibility

Apparently the NSA is in the business of subversive type design — or at least they have someone on staff who dabbles in it. Below is a video about ZXX, a set of letterforms that foil optical character recognition while preserving some level of legibility to human readers.

We’ve come a long way since the first typefaces intended specifically for human-machine inter-intelligibility. Adrian Frutiger undertook the commission for OCR-B with the intention of creating a reliable OCR font that was at least “inoffensive” to human readers.


Another typeface formed barcodes into the shape of letters.


Magnetic-ink faces like E13-B — which were designed to automate banking  in the 1960s — are in fact still used on checks and credit cards.


All of these were pioneering attempts to bridge the gap between human and machine visuality. But the gap is now so narrow, practically overlapping at times, that letterforms must now be designed to deliberately subvert OCR in certain circumstances.

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