Enlarge /. The most striking tips obviously have the most dramatic backlight.
A Department of Justice representative suggested in 2018 that the Federal Bureau of Investigation should take a look at NPR's use of a secure, encrypted tipline that reveals newly released emails.
Reporter Jason Leopold received an email exchange from DOJ officials at the request of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and shared it on Twitter. The email thread begins with a April 2018 message from Neil McCabe, who was then a reporter on One America News Network (OANN), an extreme right-wing cable news channel best known for promoting and spreading conspiracy theories. McCabe wrote to Lauren Ehrsam Gorey, who was then spokeswoman for the DoJ's public affairs office (i.e., in the department's Communication and Public Relations Department).
"Can you find out if DOJ is cool when NPR runs a Tor-enabled tip email?" McCabe wrote and added a link to NPR's instructions to submit confidential tips.
National Public Radio is an independent, nonprofit radio and media company that has about 1,000 "member stations" nationwide, much like a television station like ABC or CBS has local partner stations in most cities. McCabe's statement to ask the DoJ about the NPR tipline, however, seems to indicate that he believed it was a government outlet:
In army public affairs, the reason why soldiers do not publish stories of crime or corruption in public affairs is because the army actually has its own police force and detectives is MPs. This makes it absurd that an army newspaper reporter would commit crimes – as soon as a soldier in public affairs learns of a wrongdoing, he should report it to the authorities.
How is it then that federal government employees operate their own private silos to receive information about crimes or national security risks?
Is the DOJ synchronized with NPR to receive reports of crimes or national security threats?
Does NPR enjoy any of the journalistic privileges that would protect sources or methods?
Rather than correcting McCabe in any way, DoJ representative Ian Prior replied, "You should contact the FBI for this."
US vs. encrypted tips
The Tor-enabled tip email in question is SecureDrop, an open source document submission system managed by the Freedom of the Press Foundation. NPR uses SecureDrop so individuals can send anonymous tips. Most major national and international media, including the Associated Press, the New York Times, the Washington Post, ProPublica, Reuters, and dozens of others, also use SecureDrop.
A newsroom's SecureDrop portal can only be accessed through the Tor browser – anonymity-oriented software that actively works to block the type of tracking that can be used to easily identify most web uses.
Because Tor makes it difficult to identify users, it is often used as a gateway to the Dark Web, the invisible corner of the Internet where crime and criminals gather. However, there are many valid legal reasons why someone would like to verify their own identity – including but not limited to sharing sensitive data with investigative journalists while avoiding retaliation.
Still, nothing is perfect and the FBI has used various techniques in the past to track Tor users. For example, in 2016 the agency identified more than 135 people accessing a child pornography website. In 2018 and 2019, the FBI was able to track and arrest dozens of Tor users for drug trafficking.
The DoJ in general and Attorney General Bill Barr in particular have repeatedly expressed hostility to the idea of strong encryption.
Barr said in a speech exactly one year ago that "guarantee-proof encryption already imposes enormous costs on society" and that encrypted communication services "can and must have back doors" so that the Internet does not become a lawless zone. ""