Journalists running PR for a US government privacy app

Maybe I’m simple, but I don’t get why journalists feel like they constantly have to do free PR for a State Department/CIA spinoff product. I see it all the time. Here’s the latest.

Ok, maybe I do get the incentive here for Ken. He’s a reporter for The Intercept with a huge Twitter following, and who’s built his career on doing FOIA and getting documents leaked to him by people from inside the federal government. So he’s trying to assuage the fears of potential government leakers. Look, you have nothing to fear! Signal is safe!

Well, here’s a reminder: Signal was developed by Open Whisper Systems, a for-profit corporation run by “Moxie Marlinspike.” After selling his encryption start-up to Twitter in 2011, Moxie began partnering with America’s soft-power regime change apparatus — including the State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (now called the U.S. Agency for Global Media) — on developing tech to fight Internet censorship abroad. That relationship led to his next venture: a suite of government-funded encrypted chat and voice mobile apps. Say hello to Signal.

Exactly how much cash Signal got from the U.S. government is hard to gauge, as Moxie and Open Whisper System have been opaque about the sources of Signal’s funding. But if you tally up the information that’s been publicly released by the Open Technology Fund, the Radio Free Asia conduit that funded Signal, we know that Moxie’s outfit received at least $3 million over the span of four years — from 2013 through 2016. That’s the minimum Signal got from the feds. 

Three mil might not seem like much these days, especially because Signal recently got a huge infusion of WhatsApp oligarch cash to keep its operation going. But it’s important to know that without this early U.S. government seed money, there would be no Signal today. And that makes you think: If Signal’s super crypto tech truly posed a threat to the feds, why would the feds bankroll its creation?

That makes makes you wonder about all the leaks that Ken gets from the feds for his stories. If these leaks truly went against power and were truly damaging, his sources would get hounded down — Signal or no Signal. (For instance: cross-referencing all DHS employees with phones that ping Signal’s Amazon servers with all the people who might have access to a particular document provide a great way to narrow down the search for leakers — and that’s without using any of the fancy Signal exploits that exist on the market.) And anyway it turns out a lot of his sources, according to Ken himself, are gung-ho careerists who love their natsec jobs.

Image: @kenklippenstein

I was looking through my notes from 2014 — when I was in the thick of reporting on Tor and Signal and the spy-funded crypto activists who make up that cultish world. And who do you think I found in my notes? Yep, Ken Klippenstein. There he is, hanging out on Twitter with government contractors from the Tor Project and their various hanger-ons and complaining to them about how “embarrassing” my reporting on Tor was. It was so bad, he wrote, that it made him “blush.” Ha! All the while, these spy funded friends of his were waging an harassment and smear campaign against me and my colleagues because of my reporting on Tor’s spooky origins, and trying their hardest to get me fired from my job at Pando.

Here’s one of his friendly exchanges with a Tor developer — a federal contractor who drew a salary from the Pentagon, the State Department, and a CIA propaganda spinoff. Andrea would briefly become infamous for the ridiculous abuse she hurled at me and anyone else who dared to criticize the Tor Project. She, a supposed privacy extremist working for a privacy app, even went as far doxxing a critic and got them fired from their job.

This was in 2014, back when Ken was just starting out as reporter and building up a following. Given his total embrace of Signal and the larger crypto culture, it’s not surprising that he was sucking up to people in those vile circles when he was just beginning his career. And it helps provide more context to his recent hire by The Intercept, a wing of Pierre Omidyar’s oligarchic influence empire. The Intercept was — and remains — a nexus for the spooky world of Signal and Tor.

—Yasha Levine

PS: Like a good Intercept reporter, Ken’s already made it clear that his oligarch benefactor Pierre Omidyar is going to be outside the scope of his journalistic interests.

PPS: I recently wrote about Signal here. For a deeper dive into our America’s spy funded crypto culture, you can read my book — Surveillance Valley.