Works in Progress - Winter 2017

Widening the Whistleblower’s Reach

By Gwendolyn Purdom | December 5, 2016


The Chicago Police Department, despite new leadership, body-camera videos, and a federal investigation, still struggles with public trust. At the Chicago-based digital rights nonprofit Lucy Parsons Labs, data scientists have spent the past year digging into and exposing an often-dubious police tactic: surveillance of citizens. “We want private citizens to have privacy, and we want the government and public officials to be more public and share more information about what they’re doing,” says Parsons Labs cofounder Jennifer Helsby.

After winning several lawsuits, the labs have helped force city police to release information on their use of cell phone tracking devices and has created an interactive primer on local police surveillance practices. This year the lab launched Chicago’s first whistleblower submission system via a web platform called SecureDrop, which enables people to safely report police misconduct.

SecureDrop, originally developed by web activist Aaron Swartz before his death in 2013, allows whistleblowers and anonymous sources to connect securely with journalists. It’s hardly a new concept, Helsby points out. SecureDrop “is preserving a tool that’s existed for a long time. It’s a technical way of setting up a tip line.”

The relatively straightforward system allows sources—say, a government worker with evidence of misused police funds—to upload tips and documents anonymously. It strips documents of any identifying information, then shares them with participating journalists, who never learn the identity of the whistleblower.

Already in use by more than 20 news organizations and security advocacy groups including The New Yorker and ProPublica, the platform’s new Chicago hub so far has two journalists on hand to investigate leaked documents on police misconduct or other issues.

The lab’s work has attracted the attention of the Ford Foundation and Mozilla, which awarded Helsby an Open Web Fellowship this year. As a fellow, she is working with the Freedom of the Press Foundation, which now maintains SecureDrop, to improve its software and its use.

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