DDoSecrets turns five years old
The library of leaks includes 100 million files from 59 countries, and needs your help to continue
Today marks five years since Distributed Denial of Secrets launched - a milestone marked by leaks from 59 countries and over 100 million files.
In these five years, what has changed? Some journalists have joked that what started as leaks has become a firehose. They find themselves "drowning in leaks." We take this joke as a revelation: leaks need a new approach. No one can drink directly from a firehose. Instead, there is an argument that information should be in a reservoir, rather than a spigot. By treating the available data as a body of knowledge, the information becomes accessible.
When I decided to start DDoSecrets with the Architect, there wasn’t a safe and reliable home for leaks. While many private entities might have their own “data lakes,” few were pooling their liquid wealth together. We had seen up close some of the fatal mistakes of previous leaks and transparency projects. During the day, I was in residency working on a manuscript about Henry Kissinger and his crusade against transparency. At night, I collected data, talked to journalists, and the shape of the earliest form of DDoSecrets came into being. We announced the first version of the website on an .onion address on Dec. 3, 2018.
At the time, large newsrooms had finally begun to accept leaks, but that didn't guarantee they would report on the data. It was even less likely they would make leaked information available to others after they had reviewed it and mined it for scoops. Information, as the late Russ Kick reminds us, tends to fall down the memory hole. Existing leaks would often be removed from wherever they had been uploaded to. Over time, archives and even entire online services would cease to exist. Many people didn’t know where to look in the first place.
Our first major release came about when a journalist privately asked about some hacked Russian data that they couldn't find. This was a natural fit for DDoSecrets, and I was glad to help. I found the leak and several other previously hacked datasets, and we decided to package it together as Dark Side of the Kremlin. Then came #29 Leaks, the first of DDoSecrets' cross-border investigations.
#29 Leaks dealt with data from the infamous Formations House, which registered companies in the UK for global clients, including politicians and criminals. The data includes everything from emails to faxes, and even recordings of the calls on company phones. DDoSecrets partnered with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), to report on this leak. The experience of participating in a cross-border international investigation brought key people into DDoSecrets, like our sysadmin Milo Trujillo and our board member Annalise Burkhart, and marked the launch of the Hunter Memorial Library, a centralized search engine for our growing reservoir of leaks.
On Juneteenth 2020, we published BlueLeaks in the Hunter Memorial Library, and exposed over 1 million files from fusion centers and police departments around the United States, which one editor called “the Pentagon Papers for U.S. law enforcement.” Revelations from the files continue to this day: reporters at WIRED found details of a secretive White House surveillance program in BlueLeaks only two weeks ago.
After our publication of BlueLeaks, DDoSecrets' primary server, which included the original Hunter Memorial Library, was seized by German authorities at the request of the FBI. The United States Department of Homeland Security, the local equivalent of a Home Office or interior ministry, falsely claimed we were a criminal hacker group. Internal documents later revealed this false assessment was based on a retracted headline, nevertheless law enforcement questioned people about me and DDoSecrets. We have since weathered similar false accusations from countries like Bahamas and Russia. We have continued to publish despite censorship from states like Russia and Indonesia, and from big tech companies like Twitter and Reddit. Journalists have been questioned for reporting on our leaks in Paraguay and Equatorial Guinea, and activists in the United States have been questioned about us after mirroring our data.
Despite this we have survived, albeit massively under-funded and with limited options for hosting and other services. Without FlokiNET's commitment to helping transparency organizations, DDoSecrets couldn’t offer its unprecedented and invaluable library. Thanks to FlokiNET’s support, the Hunter search engine is being rebuilt.
What am I most proud of, about our five year run? DDoSecrets has documented finances in Myanmar, helping pressure corporations to sever ties to the military junta. The Banker's Box and Environmental Leaks collections, which have contributed to DDoSecrets’ six cross-border collaborations with the Platform to Protect whistleblowers in Africa (PPLAAF), the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), the European Investigative Collaborations (EIC), the OCCRP and at least 140 outlets, expose corruption, narcotrafficking, deforestation, tax evasion and money laundering. The Banker's Box collection of financial leaks includes corporate registries and the Fishrot Files, including portions not released by WikiLeaks.
After Russia invaded Ukraine, we became the go-to publisher for leaks about Russia. Within weeks, we were inundated with millions of Russian files, including from the Russian propaganda and censorship apparatus.
We have now published more leaked documents than any other organization, and published the largest leak in history, Policia Nacional of El Salvador, as part of the hacktivist Guacamaya’s Fuerzas Represivas series. We are enabling regional and local reporting, providing a backstop against gag orders, and working with journalism schools to teach students how to work with leaked data. Our impact is felt everytime new legislation is discussed informed by a leak, when an official investigation or inquiry is opened, when awareness increases because of access to the information, or when a source is given a safe space.
The drawbacks of this work are often personal: the toll on my physical and mental health, and having to teach my son what to do if police come to the door, or break in without knocking.
Five years of DDoSecrets has been exhausting, revelatory, confusing, terrifying, and elating. I can only hope it’s been worth it. It’s made me more confident that leaks are a necessary tool for transparency and accountability, and that they require society to see past its nose and think bigger. I’m comforted by outlets increasingly organizing collaborations on leaks. There is a wealth of existing groups and consortiums investigating leaked data, with more ad hoc alliances popping up all the time.
The reservoir belongs to the public and to other journalists. It's up to the public what to do with it, and to actually use it. Drink. Water your crops. Build irrigation, not just for today but to lay the future’s groundwork.
DDoSecrets needs donations to survive. The work is not easy, we are perpetually under-staffed and over-stretched. Donations are tax deductible in the U.S. and they make governments and obnoxiously uber-rich people everywhere mad.
A narrow and a tall one,
Distributed Denial of Secrets, co-founder