Like Will McAvoy refusing to disclose the name of his source, we refuse to relent in our recaps of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom. In this week’s discussion, which we dedicate to our most loyal fan, @svaroschi, we explore the wisdom of storing piles of classified documents in a glass office, the likelihood of traveling from New York City to Washington and back in four hours in a rainstorm while avoiding government surveillance of the BlackBerry in your hand, and whether any news organization’s operational security could be as dismal as ACN’s.
Peter Maass: Gametime!
Margot Williams: So what about the opsec of having all the documents in the middle of the newsroom in a glass-walled office?
PM: I thought the exact same thing. As in, you must be fucking kidding?
MW: And non-staffers wandering in.
PM: I also thought, I hope they have a couple of industrial-strength shredders, because you don’t want that many classified documents lying around for a long time.
MW: And boxing them up to send to the Associated Press? With the ACN logo on the cover sheets. COVER SHEETS?
PM: Just printing out those things seemed incredibly irresponsible. Not to belabor our good friend Mr. Air Gap, but was there any sign that they printed those things securely? Micah, what can we say about protocols for printing 27,000 classified documents, should we so desire?
Micah Lee: Some printers store a cache of everything that’s been printed on them. So if the folks at ACN used their big networked office printer, there’s a good chance that all 27,000 documents are both on their air-gapped computer as well as on the networked printer now. If you want to print secret documents in a secure way, it’s best to use a dedicated air-gapped printer. You might also want to open the printer and remove the wireless card.
MW: I don’t think they did that
PM: Remove the card so that outsiders can’t teleport into the stuff being printed, right?
MW: So the HR guy can’t get in. Like the photos deleted from Instagram. The near enemy=HR.
PM: Never thought I’d say this about someone from human relations, but I’m going to miss the HR guy from The Newsroom. Kind of liked him.
ML: You might be interested to know that printers often uniquely watermark the pages that were printed.
ML: If the FBI raids the AP and finds the boxes of documents (assuming the docs didn’t already have the ACN logo on the letterhead) they could use the documents themselves to prove they came from ACN.
MW: Were those cardboard boxes secure? They did have TAPE.
PM: Tape is a higher level of encryption.
MW: Total Adhesive Protocol Encryption=TAPE.
PM: May I raise another risible opsec issue in this episode?
PM: Mac’s cellphone. As in, taking your cellphone to a meeting with a secret source who just leaked 27,000 docs to you. Not. A. Good. Idea.
ML: OK, so there were a large number of problems with that. First, the act of arranging the meeting would be very, very tricky to do securely, assuming Mac is under surveillance, which I think is a fair assumption. Did she call the source on the phone? Send an email? Last I checked ACN isn’t using SecureDrop, which is a secure and anonymous way to communicate with sources.
PM: I believe she had her cellphone in her hand when she told Don she would be gone for four hours, so implying she was going to call the source on said insecure phone.
ML: And what’s her reason for taking a last-minute plane flight from NYC to the DC area, and then a taxi ride to Langley? Her cell is being tracked this entire time.
MW: And how did she make a round-trip from midtown NYC to Washington and back in four hours? In the rain. Excuse me.
PM: Maybe she encrypted herself to Washington? Much faster that way.
ML: The government would be able to track her cellphone’s location to the meeting. I think it’s less likely but also possible that the government hacked her phone and was using it as a listening device.
MW: But it was raining.
ML: Margot’s right, it was raining pretty hard, so they might not have been able to hear the conversation. But good opsec on the source’s part: disabling GPS in her car, and not having the meeting in her car in case there was a bug. If you want to have a secret meeting, the safest place to have it is outside.
PM: Pity that Mac wasn’t so astute. She had her cell in her hand in the taxi. I think Sorkin did that for a reason, though; I’m wondering whether he’s setting up America for a lesson in location tracking via cellphones?
MW: THAT would be amazing
PM: Strange thing is that the source is a pro but deals with know-nothings like Mac. Edward Snowden insisted that his interlocutors follow strict security protocols (Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald). Why doesn’t ACN’s source?
ML: True. The source isn’t pushing opsec on the journalists the way Snowden pushed opsec on Glenn and Laura.
ML: Oh, and Mac threatened to turn the source into the FBI if she published the documents on her own??!?!?
PM: Like, what kind of journalist are you?
ML: Not the best way to build a good relationship with the source.
PM: “My source is bossy. I’m going to threaten to turn her into the Feds.” Wtf?
ML: That was messed up. In Mac’s defense, I think she was maybe just angry and wouldn’t really turn in the source. But regardless, that was messed up.
PM: If memory serves, Snowden made it clear at some point that if he was going to risk leaking those docs, he wanted to be sure the risk would be worthwhile in the sense of the docs being published. I get that. So I get the source pushing Mac.
PM: Last little thing about Mac and opsec. She was using a BlackBerry, right? Although few people still own them, they used to be known as one of the more secure cellphones. Still true, Micah?
ML: I think the Android and iOS have played catch-up quite a bit recently. The reason BlackBerry has the reputation is because it was the only phone that encrypted much of what the user did for a long time. But right now there are no perfect choices. You can’t trust phones at this point. I would trust a Cryptophone or Blackphone more than something you buy from a cellphone carrier, but I wouldn’t call them NSA-proof. (For that matter, I wouldn’t call anything NSA-proof.)
PM: Hold on a sec for a great tweet on NSA-proofing cellphones that was on my feed this weekend.
ML: You know what else is bad opsec? After Hallie was fired from ACN for her Boston Marathon tweet, they didn’t revoke her security privileges. She just walked right into the glass room full of classified documents, being a former employee who was fired. And at 1am, too.
MW: And Jim was reading the documents drunk.
ML: What if Jim wasn’t in that room? She could have just taken the documents, and Carnivore would have had quite the story.
MW: It’s called DUI–Documents Under the Influence.
ML: I still don’t understand why Neal, and now Will, know the source’s name. Why would she have told Neal her name?
PM: To provide confirmation that the docs are legit? I can see a reason she’d do that or that Neal would ask. One of the things that Glenn and Laura did, once they met Snowden, was to quiz him intensively about his background, to make sure that the docs were legit. If he’s legit then the docs probably are. Of course they didn’t get his name until several months into the process, but still, verifying his bona fides was crucial to establishing the authenticity of the docs, I think. Or maybe not crucial, but useful. Of course there’s a flip side–it’s a security risk for them to know the source’s name. But if the source is demanding quick publication, and the journalists need to quickly figure out if the docs are legit, then knowing the source’s name would be useful, to confirm that the source would have access to the docs provided by the source.
ML: That’s true. It doesn’t seem like it got that far though. It seems like they communicated for two days before the FBI came knocking.
PM: Things move quickly in Sorkinland.
MW: SecureDrop is anonymous, but won’t journalists try to make contact to verify docs?
ML: If a journalist receives documents in SecureDrop, the documents need to be verified somehow. Maybe by learning the source’s identity and credentials if the documents can’t be verified some other way. But if the source wants to be anonymous it makes sense to try to verify the docs some other way.
ML: On another note, can you get married the same day you decide you want to in New York, as Will and Mac did just before he went to jail for refusing to give up his source’s name? Unless they had gone to the court house and gotten a marriage license in the past, in preparation for the wedding they were planning. But they’d have to be ridiculously organized wedding-planners to do that.
PM: Uhm, I’m going to embarrass myself here, but I got married in NY and got the license more than a few days before I actually did the deed with my wife-to-be.
ML: Haha, ok so maybe I’m wrong
MW: According to New York procedures, you can get a judicial waiver: “A 24 hour waiting period after you and your prospective spouse obtain your license is required by New York State Law. In the event that you and your prospective spouse must marry before the 24 hour waiting period is over, you can request permission from a Judge to waive this requirement. You can request a Judicial Waiver from the County Clerk in the county (borough) where you obtained your Marriage License.”
PM: Can we discuss my new favorite character, the billionaire Pruitt? Which gets into the new media/old media storyline? As well as airports with only runways and fences (which might not be a good idea during holiday travel periods). And it allows us to talk about drug dealers.
MW: The world according to Pruitt: “Books are like the new art. We don’t need them any more but they look good.”
PM: I LOVED that! I mean, I hate loved it. And the snap line to the ancient Charlie, “I’ll send you a Kindle, Grandpa Joe. You’ll like it.” Can we give Pruitt his own show?
ML: I like my Kindle.
MW: Hallie had this to say: “I want to be part of the digital revolution.” (With an earnest expression like her mother, Meryl Streep.)
PM: Anyone who says they want to be part of the digital revolution cannot be part of the digital revolution, because that happened 20 years ago.
MW: And she whined about it.
PM: “Digital revolution” is like books and art–kind of nice but we don’t need them anymore.
ML: There’s nothing wrong with professional journalists tweeting and tumblring. I mean, just look at Racket Teen.