"So, you can protect my anonymity," Alice wrote.
"That's the idea. We vouch for your identity, but never reveal it to the public. Your work gets published, but you don't jeopardize any of your existing relationships or contracts. The piece rests on our credibility, not yours. So it's vitally important that you're credible." Helen Smith was a legendary editor at one of the most important publications in the country. She was famous for asking tough questions and holding Silicon Valley CEOs to account, when most journalists were forced into sticking to softball questions.
And now she was at the other end of a secure connection, exchanging instant messages with Alice. So far, she was doing this on trust - JT had made the connection and she had used him as a source in the past. But the moment of truth was about to arrive.
"I need you to start an encrypted video call with me," Helen wrote. "I'll ask you to confirm your identity on the call."
"OK," Alice wrote.
She glanced up from her laptop. JT had urged her to move to a secure location, so she'd left her coffee shop workspace and headed back home. She had thrown her laundry off her bed to make room for her to sit on it; her laptop was precariously balanced on her legs, with the pile of shirts and underwear on the floor beside her. In the other room, she could hear her roommate watching Netflix with her boyfriend, the booming bass of the soundtrack and the sounds of beer bottles on the coffee table muffled through the walls.
It would have to do. She clicked the "start call" button.
Almost immediately, Helen picked up. In contrast to Alice's makeshift perch, she was in a sparse office with white walls, sitting at a clear desk. The top of a mesh-backed Italian office chair peeked over her shoulders. "Hello," she said. "It's good to meet you. I'm Helen Smith, technology editor of the New York Times."
Alice gave a little wave over the webcam. "Hi," she said. "I'm Alice McFadden. Technology writer at TechSweep. Usually, anyway."
Helen adjusted her glasses and gave Alice the hint of a smile. "I've read your work," she said. "Very .. positive."
Alice shrugged. "It's what you have to do."
"I know. And I'm grateful that you're coming to me with something more substantial."
"I'm grateful that you're going to publish it."
"Well, let's not get too ahead of ourselves," Helen said. "I can't guarantee to publish it. I haven't seen it yet. Once you've got a draft, I'll take a look at it, and if we choose to continue with the project, I'll send you back some notes. At the same time, we will need to proceed with our usual fact-checking, although I can ensure that the fact-checkers themselves aren't aware of your identity. If, of course, the story itself lends itself to that level of security."
"It does," Alice said.
"Can you elaborate?"
Alice took a deep breath. "As you know, the social networks were told that they need to enact restrictions to prevent illegal political advertising during the election. Ads needed to have been properly attributed, so you knew who was buying them; ads that weren't attributed shouldn't have been run. As you may also know, the filters didn't really work, and there were both false positives and false negatives."
Helen nodded. "This doesn't sound new. We've published stories about all of that."
"Right. But I have emails that show not just that they knew the filters didn't work - but that it was done on purpose. And that they worked with political groups on a huge ad spend to seed the idea that the election had been compromised and that people shouldn't bother to vote. Completely unattributed; completely untruthful; completely illegal. But very profitable for them."
"Have you verified the emails?"
"It's hard to say right now if they're authentic, but they certainly appear to be - and there are a lot of them. They come with full email headers, which could probably be cross-referenced with server records in a legal investigation. But the gist is that the social networks have been helping political campaigns, corporations, and other organizations to get around the rules and place material to influence the election. And that's not even the worst of it.
"The worst is that they've been knowingly allowing bot and sock puppet campaigns to be run on their platforms, too: millions of fake users, some of which are software, and some of which are being run by real people in an office somewhere, whose only purpose is to infiltrate conversations and swing opinion. We knew it was happening, and we might have suspected that the social networks were in on it, because they were being tremendously ineffective at removing these accounts. I have proof that they are consciously enabling these information warfare campaigns."
"On whose behalf?" Helen asked.
"It's not all completely clear. And I need to spend more time with the data. But it looks like many of them have been quietly asked to do this work by their own investors - people who have bought board seats in the companies itself."
Helen leaned in. "Which investors?"
"I'll send you the data dump. But one name jumped out at me, because they have the largest venture capital fund in Silicon Valley."
"Source Code Capital," Helen said.
"Source Code Capital," Alice confirmed. "It looks like their modus operandi is to buy themselves into influential data companies not because of their financial value, but precisely because they're influential. They make sure they get a board seat - or a couple of board seats - as part of the deal. And then, from there, they use that influence on behalf of their partners. It's so much bigger than a story about a handful of companies making a profit illegally. There are entities - and I don't think Source Code Capital is the only one - that seem to want to use these companies as proxies in order to achieve some unknown political end. War isn't just a metaphor here. It's literally information warfare."
Helen paused, taking this all in. "I want that story as soon as possible," she said, finally. "And I'm going to need to see some of this information sooner rather than later. This is going to have to be a thorough investigation."
"I completely understand," Alice said. "I don't want it to be intercepted, though, for obvious reasons."
"Of course. Have you ever used SecureDrop?"
Alice hadn't. She'd heard of it, she thought, but would have been hard pressed to say what it was or how to use it. "No."
"It was developed by the Freedom of the Press Foundation. Aaron Swartz was the original developer."
Alice had heard of Aaron Swartz: he had used a connection at MIT in order to release academic journal articles to the public. The university had prosecuted, and he had found himself accused of federal crimes with a maximum sentence of fifty years. It was an incredibly overzealous prosecution, and Swartz took his own life while waiting for trial. Rightly, he was considered to be an information freedom hero.
"We have an instance running in our offices," Helen continued. "The idea is that you can send us information over an encrypted connection, easily and anonymously. All you need to do is visit our SecureDrop with your web browser, and make sure you have enough time to upload the complete set of data. SecureDrop takes care of the rest. You need to be careful about leaving your own fingerprints on the files - make sure nothing in the files accidentally mentions your computer's name, your username or IP address, or any of your encryption keys. But it's usually the best way to get any kind of sensitive data files to us. And in this particular case, I'd appreciate it if you used it to upload this data to me sometime in the next twelve hours."
"I'll make sure I do]," Alice confirmed.
"Good. And in general from here on out, please only use encrypted lines to contact me. But also, and really more than anything else, please be safe. This seems like a pretty out-there story, but if you really have the proof to back it up, you could very well be in danger from people who would rather keep it away from the American people. Warfare is warfare. If you find that you can no longer report on the story because you think there may be a risk of harm to you or people you care about, let me know, and we'll see what we can do to help."
Alice nodded. "Thank you."
"Keep in touch," Helen said. "We'll want to know you're still working on this. We don't want to be worried about you." And with that, the call was over.
Alice slouched against the back wall. Her roommate was yelling at whatever was happening on the TV; her boyfriend was laughing along.
"How do I know if this is real?" she wrote to JT, after a moment.
"Just pull the thread," he wrote. "See where it goes."
"Thank you for connecting me to Helen."
"You're welcome. I think I believe in this story. I believe in you. I don't know what the Times will do, but I believe you'll find a way to get it out.
"Just, please, be careful."
Alice smiled, shut closed the lid of her laptop, and wondered how the hell she would verify any of the information she read. It had seemed like an exciting idea, and she was glad to be working on a real story, but the reality of what she would need to do was only beginning to dawn on her. Usually, stories of this scale were reported over time, with a large team, and a significant budget. It wasn't left to one person in a tiny apartment in San Francisco with an oblivious roommate and a laundry problem. If she was going to do this right, she would need to find collaborators she could trust: people she could co-report the story with. There was no way she could go through all the data herself, let alone speak to all the sources she'd need to. But her reputation as the cheerleader who always wrote positive stories about the latest technology companies might be a great cover.
She grabbed a notebook and pen from her laptop bag and started writing.
Meanwhile, unnoticed in the corner of the room, sitting unobtrusively on her chest of drawers, Alice's iPhone began to get unusually hot.