Crypto Tales from the Trenches

Presented at 31C3 (2014), Dec. 27, 2014, 11 p.m. (60 minutes)

Julia Angwin, Jack Gillum, and Laura Poitras will tell us stories about how they use crypto and privacy-enhancing technologies as high-profile journalists, and rant in an entertaining way about how these tools have failed or are horribly inadequate for their needs. They will also talk about their rare crypto successes. Cryptography and privacy-enhancing technologies are increasingly part of a modern journalist's spycraft. But what does it look like when a reporter actually tries to protect herself and her sources with the best tools that the hacker/academic/activist/cipherpunk/technologist communities have produced? Disaster, chaos, crashes, and UI-sponsored opsec fails. In this talk, Julia Angwin, Jack Gillum, and Laura Poitras will tell us highly entertaining and disturbing war stories of using crypto in the field as high-risk targets, and excoriate the crypto and developer communities for failing to meet their needs while claiming success and security for all. We will hear how the crypto-nerd's utopia of deniable poker over the phone with an honest-but-curious adversary becomes a set of barely usable implementations and user expectation mismatches. We hope to provide some clarity on what works and what doesn't for those who develop or aspire to develop secure applications, and also a rough guide to usable opsec right now for sources, journalists, and other nontechnical users worried about sophisticated adversaries.


  • Jack Gillum
    Jack Gillum is a reporter on the Washington investigations team of The Associated Press, where he focuses on government accountability and the intersection of technology, privacy and surveillance. He's previously reported on campaign finance during the 2012 presidential election, and has pursued data-driven investigations into standardized test cheating and college athletics at USA Today. He has also reported for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, his hometown. A miner of public records, Gillum has uncovered other Washington secrets, such as the use of secret email accounts by senior executive branch employees to the use of federal aviation regulations to block press access in Ferguson, Missouri.
  • Laura Poitras
    Laura Poitras is an Oscar nominated documentary film maker.
  • Julia Angwin
    Julia Angwin is an investigative journalist at ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom in New York, who covers, technology, surveillance and privacy. She is also the author of "Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance," which was published by Times Books in 2014. Julia Angwin is a senior reporter at ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative journalism newsroom in New York. From 2000 to 2013, she was a reporter at The Wall Street Journal, where she led a privacy investigative team that was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Reporting in 2011 and won a Gerald Loeb Award in 2010. Her book "Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance," was published by Times Books in 2014. In 2003, she was on a team of reporters at The Wall Street Journal that was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Reporting for coverage of corporate corruption. She is also the author of “Stealing MySpace: The Battle to Control the Most Popular Website in America” (Random House, March 2009). She earned a B.A. in mathematics from the University of Chicago and an MBA from the Graduate School of Business at Columbia University.
  • Nadia Heninger


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