This story is part of our special coverage, The News in Crisis.
When Edward Snowden leaked the biggest collection of classified National Security Agency documents in history, he wasn’t just revealing the inner workings of a global surveillance machine. He was also scrambling to evade it. To communicate with the journalists who would publish his secrets, he had to route all his messages over the anonymity software Tor, teach reporters to use the encryption tool PGP by creating a YouTube tutorial that disguised his voice, and eventually ditch his comfortable life (and smartphone) in Hawaii to set up a cloak-and-dagger data handoff halfway around the world.
Now, nearly four years later, Snowden has focused the next phase of his career on solving that very specific instance of the panopticon problem: how to protect reporters and the people who feed them information in an era of eroding privacy—without requiring them to have an NSA analyst’s expertise in encryption or to exile themselves to Moscow. “Watch the journalists and you’ll find their sources,” Snowden says. “So how do we preserve that confidentiality in this new world, when it’s more important than ever?”
Since early last year, Snowden has quietly served as president of a small San Francisco–based nonprofit called the Freedom of the Press Foundation. Its mission: to equip the media to do its job at a time when state-sponsored hackers and government surveillance threaten investigative reporting in ways Woodward and Bernstein never imagined. “Newsrooms don’t have the budget, the sophistication, or the skills to defend themselves in the current environment,” says Snowden, who spoke to WIRED via encrypted video-chat from his home in Moscow. “We’re trying to provide a few niche tools to make the game a little more fair.”
The group’s 10 staffers and a handful of contract coders, with Snowden’s remote guidance, are working to develop an armory of security upgrades for reporters. Snowden and renowned hacker Bunnie Huang have partnered to develop a hardware modification for the iPhone, designed to detect if malware on the device is secretly transmitting a reporter’s data, including location. They’re developing a piece of software called Sunder that uses code written by Frederic Jacobs, one of the programmers for the popular encryption app Signal1; Sunder would allow journalists to encrypt a trove of secrets and then retrieve them only if several newsroom colleagues combine their passwords to access the data. And the foundation’s coders are building a plug-and-play version of Jitsi, the encrypted video-chat software Snowden himself uses for daily communication. They want newsrooms to be able to install it on their own servers with a few clicks. “The idea is to make this all paint-by-numbers instead of teaching yourself to be Picasso,” Snowden says.