KEN BENSINGER The government didn't just have a passive role in this, we believe at least 12 informants working for the FBI as well as at least two undercover agents were mixed in with these people.
BRANDY ZADROZNY We love stories of heroes and villains, but what do we do when it's hard to tell the good and the bad guys apart? From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brandy Zadrozny. Also on this week's show, a hacker makes an ethical case for leaking stolen data sets to reporters.
LORAX HORNE We say the data speaks for itself and that data is only a part of the story.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Plus, a priest is outed using Grindr data. And while the source of the information may be new, the fights it’s feeding are very, very old.
MICHAEL O'LOUGHLIN There's this attack really at every level of the church that says gay men are not suited to be priests because they're a threat to children. And you have this really unfortunate conflation between homosexuality and pedophilia.
BRANDY ZADROZNY It's all coming up after this.
[END OF BILLBOARD]
BRANDY ZADROZNY From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brandy Zadrozny. You can usually find me at NBC News, where I'm a senior reporter covering the Internet. For the next couple of weeks, I'll be sitting in for Brooke while she takes a well-earned vacation. This week, the House Select Committee hearings on the January 6th insurrection began, and for Capitol Hill police officers, an opportunity to give their perspective on the events of the day and the aftermath.
MICHAEL FANONE I feel like I went to hell and back to protect them and the people in this room, but too many are now telling me that hell doesn't exist or that hell actually wasn't that bad. The indifference shown to my colleagues is disgraceful. [SLAMS] [END CLIP]
BRANDY ZADROZNY For a moment in American history, watched by so many, our memories and opinions of the day continue to defy consensus. Some of the violence, though, is beyond refute. During the attack, Daniel Hodges of the D.C. Metropolitan Police was forcibly jammed into a doorway by crowds of insurrectionists trying to get into the building. The footage is horrifying.
[SOUNDS OF DANIEL HODGES SCREAMING IN PAIN PLAY]
BRANDY ZADROZNY Hodges took the stand on Tuesday and he had one word to describe the people who stormed the U.S. Capitol, nearly taking his life:
DANIEL HODGES ...I backtrack and started pulling the terrorists off my team... One of the terrorists who had scaled the scaffold...Terrorists were breaking apart the metal fencing and bike racks... [END CLIP]
BRANDY ZADROZNY When asked why he used the word "terrorist," he replied with a definition from U.S. statute:
DANIEL HODGES U.S. Code, Title 18, Part one, Chapter 1-1-3-B, as in brown, Section 2331. The term domestic terrorism means activities that involve acts dangerous to human life, that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any state. And B, appeared to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population or to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion. [END CLIP]
BRANDY ZADROZNY After January 6th, demands to call the capital invaders “domestic terrorists” were everywhere, and the events of that day motivated a decree from the White House.
NEWS REPORT The Biden administration unveiling the first ever national strategy to combat domestic terrorism. [END CLIP]
BRANDY ZADROZNY But not too long ago, that term was directly associated with its occupant.
NEWS REPORT The person who's behind all of the disinformation that's driving some of this domestic terrorism threat is the president of the United States. [END CLIP]
BRANDY ZADROZNY The word terrorist packs an emotional punch, but it can also give some very practical powers to agencies that don't exactly have a track record of using them responsibly. For decades, the U.S. intelligence community has used extralegal tactics to investigate, frame and arrest people deemed existential threats to the government. In the 1950s, that meant socialist boogeymen.
NEWSREEL New York and Pittsburgh, 17 U.S. communist leaders are arrested. Among Israel Amter, a charter member of the American body. Four more red leaders are still being sought. [END CLIP]
BRANDY ZADROZNY In the 1960s, the Black Panthers.
BLACK PANTHER We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people.
NARRATOR Not many people know that the Panthers got some of their first weapons from a man named Richard Aoki. And nobody knew that Aoki was an informant for the FBI. [END CLIP]
BRANDY ZADROZNY Where the state labeled radicals go, the FBI follows or... Infiltrates. And after 9/11, the scrutiny of the feds focused in on one particular kind of enemy of the state.
NEWS REPORT Breaking news tonight at 11. Police say they've found what appears to be an improvised explosive device in a car in Times Square.
NEWS REPORT It is unclear whether the suspect had help from others in planning the attack. But officials say it does appear he was at least inspired by terrorists. [END CLIP]
BRANDY ZADROZNY Some of the splashiest stories around busts of terrorist plots, it turns out, later featured FBI informants as main characters, like the 2009 story of 4 Muslim men arrested in connection with a plot to shoot down planes in Newburgh, New York. A plot they were led into by a man working for the FBI.
NARRATOR This operation was specifically designed to turn them into terrorism. [END CLIP]
BRANDY ZADROZNY It's a tactic that, while fraught, hasn't gone out of style. Take the stymied attempt to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer, the purported warm up act to the January 6th attack.
GRETCHEN WHITMER This is anti-American, this kind of language and threatening actions to our fellow Americans. This kind of behavior cannot stand and people of goodwill need to call it out and call it domestic terrorism when it does happen. [END CLIP]
BRANDY ZADROZNY At the time arrests were made in the case last October, it was a front page win for the FBI, almost like something out of an action movie, complete with informants wearing wires, code names and the rescue of a high profile politician. Six men were charged in federal court with conspiring to kidnap a sitting governor, and 8 additional men were charged in Michigan State Court with providing material support for terrorist acts. But two investigative journalists at BuzzFeed News have now revealed that the story is much less clear cut than federal prosecutors originally made it seem.
KEN BENSINGER What we discovered. Speaking to defense attorneys, reading through extensive court documents, transcripts, was that the government didn't just have a passive role in this.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Ken Bensinger co-wrote the story for BuzzFeed News.
KEN BENSINGER On the contrary, the government was very deeply involved in the entire situation almost from the beginning, it had a network of multiple informants, we believe at least 12 informants working for the FBI were involved, as well as at least 2 undercover agents were mixed in with these people.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Can you tell me about Thor?
KEN BENSINGER Thor is the code name the FBI gave to a guy whose name is Dan, and we know his last name, but we're not revealing it because he has expressed in court concerns about his safety. He is an Army veteran who served in Iraq doing the really toughest on the ground kind of combat you can imagine. Dan was a gun enthusiast and someone who wanted to keep his skills that he learned in the army in shape. And he thought that he could potentially find individuals or groups in Michigan who he could train with. So in early March 2020, Dan went onto Facebook looking for people he could talk about the Second Amendment and guns with. The recommendation engine for Facebook spat out a few different things you could look at it, and among them was a group called the Michigan Wolverine Watchmen.
BRANDY ZADROZNY And so Dan joins this group and he's sort of concerned with what he sees after he gets sort of under the hood. He gets through the Facebook group, he goes on an encrypted messaging app and something that he sees there scares him.
KEN BENSINGER That's right. When Dan, within a few hours of joining and looking through their encrypted messaging group, he finds messages that truly disturb him because instead of talking about training, they're talking about hunting down and killing police officers. One of the members encourages them to download a hunting app onto their cell phones that can be used to tabulate police officers’ home addresses. And they could use that theory to go and hunt them in their homes and kill them. Dan is scared enough by this that he goes and tells a friend who's a local police officer and that friend communicates with the FBI about it. And within a few days, Dan finds himself inside the FBI's field office in Flint, Michigan.
BRANDY ZADROZNY And he becomes an informant and he wears a wire. How else do Dan and the other, you said, dozen informants work with the FBI and what does the FBI give in return for their service?
KEN BENSINGER Dan's role with this group is to essentially let them mirror his phone and his computer. And he also, within about a month of signing up with the FBI, starts wearing a wire to pretty much every single event, and likewise with other informants, we found that there's this large network of informants. We don't know the role of all of them, but for example, one of them is a gentleman from Wisconsin who from the early stages was planning meetings and organizing some of the meetings at the FBI, and the Department of Justice have now pointed to his signal moments in putting this all together. And he went to great lengths to get people to come and in some instances offered to pay for their lodging and transport if they would come to these meetings. So you're seeing financial assistance essentially from informants to get people active and involved. And in exchange, these informants were all reimbursed not only for their expenses, but for more stuff. So in the case of Dan, who played such an important role in the case, he got 24,000 dollars in payment for services for the government, an additional 30,000 for expenses. The government paid his mortgage for a while. They paid his telephone bill. They bought him a new computer, a new cell phone, and they bought him a new truck. And when he sold his house and he didn't get what he expected to get on it, they also paid him 4500 dollars to make up for the difference in the in the house price.
BRANDY ZADROZNY There's a conflict here right around the use of FBI informants? Some are going to say whatever it was, these guys were in a car with night vision goggles, plotting a kidnapping. And, you know, whatever you want to say about that confidential informant or no, it worked, right? There was no attack. But others are going to call that entrapment or at least government overreach? Saying that the men would have never been involved at all had the FBI not set the stage, picked the players, wrote a lot of the script.
KEN BENSINGER Well, that's certainly one of the questions we were trying to poke at with this story. Reminds me of the old expression that you can't prove a negative. We, of course, will never know how far these men would have gotten without the government's involvement. The government can certainly trumpet the fact that, no, the governor was never kidnaped, and that's true, but, you know, one has to wonder whether that surveillance operation would have ever happened without 4 or 5 government operatives in the cars that made that surveillance mission.
BRANDY ZADROZNY I have to say, it's very reminiscent of some of the very popular far right conspiracy theories we're hearing right now around the January 6th attacks.
TUCKER CARLSON The government knows who they are, what the government has not charged them. Why is that? You know why. They were almost certainly working for the FBI. So FBI operatives were organizing the attack on the Capitol. [END CLIP]
BRANDY ZADROZNY Were you at all concerned in reporting your story that you could inflame those claims?
KEN BENSINGER We were concerned we would inflame it. At the same time, we didn't feel, given what our reporting was, that it was appropriate not to talk about how this case was really made.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Your story specifically cites the court records that show the informants used by the FBI. And have you seen similar things inside the January 6th?
KEN BENSINGER Yeah, that's exactly right. You know, the government has even put one of its informants on the stand. So there was a full day of testimony by Dan or Thor as he's known. And the government has also admitted it had multiple undercover federal agents. When it comes to January 6, though, we haven't seen any of that, right? We've seen misinformed statements that court documents prove it because they say they identify people as person 1 or person 12 in court documents and they misunderstand sort of the rubric of federal courts where they think that means those people were undercover agents. But in fact, it's clear if anyone who understands how court documents are, those are not federal agents and nowhere else has there been any kind of evidence anyone was infiltrated in that crowd.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Can we talk about the term domestic terrorism? How did that label play into the FBI's operation?
KEN BENSINGER You know, when the case was first charged, this was still in the Trump administration and Bill Barr was still attorney general and they arrested these people and charge them in the federal case with one count, which was kidnaping, conspiracy. And there was no mention of terrorism in the charging papers or in the press releases or any other documents. And then in April of this year, now under the Biden administration, with Merrick Garland as attorney general, they added additional counts. And in the indictment, they specifically called the acts, acts of domestic terrorism.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Are you suggesting that's political?
KEN BENSINGER It's possible. That might have been a reaction to the kind of pressures that the post January 6 world has put upon the Justice Department to decide that this is domestic terrorism. Part of the context and backdrop is that there is no federal statute for domestic terrorism as its own kind of crime. There are definitions within different statutes that can be aggravating. That is to say they can increase the penalties when people are sentenced. That said, since January 6, there's been a movement by some, particularly on the left, to create a federal statute that would officially make being members of a domestic terrorist group a crime and create a national list of domestic terrorism organizations. And that's a debate that's been going around in Washington, and you have some talking heads on this topic, ranging from former FBI agents to former prosecutors who have a varying degree of opinions about what the correct thing to do.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Yes, they're in my Twitter replies quite often.
BRANDY ZADROZNY I'm sure you've seen them as well.
KEN BENSINGER I have, yeah.
BRANDY ZADROZNY That their calls to call it domestic terrorism.
KEN BENSINGER Right. And, you know, I think it spotlights one of the things we really want to poke at with a story which is, broadly speaking, people on the left right now want to see sort of everyone who's involved in an alleged conspiracy to kidnap a governor or who walked into the Capitol to sort of be prosecuted to the full extent of the law and strung up in public, if possible. And the right thinks it's overblown and government overreach, and this is outrageous. And that kind of is an exact flipping of the script we might have seen in the 1960's And 70's with groups like the Black Panthers or the Weather Underground or for that matter, Martin Luther King or Malcolm X. So the worm has kind of turned around on that stuff. But I think, you know, a lot of civil libertarians, people are interested in particularly the First Amendment, would say that the fundamental questions about government overreach apply to both groups and that making these things into partisan issues distracts from the real questions that we as Americans should be thinking about.
BRANDY ZADROZNY So apart from Twitter reply guys and politicians, do you think that journalists have been using the term domestic terrorism responsibly?
KEN BENSINGER I've seen instances where they haven't. I think there's a lot of pressure and I think social media amplifies it to be as sensationalistic as possible when covering these matters. Right? People in your replies on Twitter or like call them a terrorist, call them a terrorist, call them what they are! But there are those of us who are here for the clicks and likes, like it's tempting to go down that road, but I don't think it really does a tremendous service to the public to just put that out there and not give it context. I think we have a responsibility to provide as much context to the story as possible. And when we don't do that, we just feed stereotypes.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Can your original breaking story, the one 9 months ago, it was headlined, quote, "Here's How a Group of Radical Militants Hatched a Plan to Kidnap Michigan's Governor Before the Election." And now I have a confession, and it's that I wrote a story the same day and I covered the story very similarly. Is it fair to say that your, or our, early coverage was too credulous?
KEN BENSINGER I mean, you read that to me, and I'm just thinking I really should have thrown "allegedly" in that headline. I'm not going to fall into the reporter's trap of just blaming editors for writing the headlines, I, you know, at least saw them, and I wish I'd thrown allegedly in there because it was a really big story and we were all frantic to cover it. And we were receiving sort of direct-into-the-vein what the federal prosecutors were telling us. And I tried hopefully to provide some analysis there, but ultimately, you know, we all in those moments sometimes serve a little more than transcription agencies for what the prosecutors want to put out there. And sometimes we don't want to hedge our writing by saying "allegedly" or "what prosecutors claim" and that sort of thing, but that language is really important, especially when we look back 9 months later on what we wrote. I think is difficult because we as reporters want to feel the moment and–
BRANDY ZADROZNY It's intoxicating.
KEN BENSINGER It is intoxicating. And I can't say I'm really proud. I think that story had a lot of good stuff about it, but I do think that we should have been a little bit more careful to cast that as allegations and not a definitive thing.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Knowing this lesson now, knowing that facts change, knowing that what we get originally is often right from the prosecutor and from social media. What should a news consumer keep, I guess, in their head, next time they see a story like this?
KEN BENSINGER Yeah, I mean, I think that it's kind of a heavy burden to put on our readers to say, well, I'm circumspect, and I should read a couple different sources on this, but a sense, there is kind of a duty on readers to think that not everything that comes from the government is true or not everything for the press is true. And that's, that's a weird conflict because we as journalists try really hard to tell the things as true as we can. And we really get our backs up when people suggest that the lame stream media is making it all up. Because, you know, those of us who've worked in this for a long time, know that we really do endeavor to do it, play it as straight as we can and as honestly as we can, and that's a point of pride for us. But if readers can say, well, that's interesting, I can't wait to learn more, that might be a better thing than OK, now I know that these guys were domestic terrorists, racists who wanted to kill the governor. That's the kind of takeaway I wouldn't want to see happen.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Well, your story was really clarifying and I think made me think and will continue to do so. Thank you for writing it.
KEN BENSINGER It was my pleasure. And thanks for the thoughtful questions.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Ken Bensinger with coauthor Jessica Garrison wrote "Watching The Watchmen" for BuzzFeed News. Coming up, hack's leaks and data for sale. This is On the Media.
BRANDY ZADROZNY This is On the Media, I'm Brandy's Zadrozny, Micah Loewinger, On the Media reporter, hello!
MICAH LOEWINGER Hey, Brandy!
BRANDY ZADROZNY How are you?
MICAH LOEWINGER Good, thanks for having me.
BRANDY ZADROZNY OK, so what are you working on?
MICAH LOEWINGER So a couple of weeks ago I got a tip from a listener. They sent me a photo of a car that had a sticker of a far right group on it, a far right group's insignia, and they wanted me to identify the person's car. And they kind of had a hunch of who it belonged to. I wasn't sure what to do. So I went to another journalist at WNYC. His name is George Joseph, and I said, George, "what do you think we do?" And he says, Actually, I think we can look up the license plate using hacked data from an app called Park Mobile. Now, Park Mobile is like a pretty common app. You use it to pay a parking meter, and so I went to a hacker forum, downloaded this big file and typed in the license plate number. And out came a person's name, their email address and their phone number.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Woooow.
MICAH LOEWINGER At first I was like, really psyched, kind of feeling like a little bit of a god. You know, I was like, "there's no knowledge that I cannot consume."
BRANDY ZADROZNY Oh lord.
MICAH LOEWINGER But very quickly, the excitement started to give way to a deep uneasiness. Is this ethical? Is it fair game to do this? I wanted to speak with a journalist who's grappled with these questions and might be able to help me think through some of the ethics of this kind of reporting.
KEVIN COLLIER Well, it's complicated. I don't know how to get into it without kind of really getting into it.
MICAH LOEWINGER So I reached out to your friend, Kevin Collier.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Yeah, Kevin Collier. He's great. He's like the hack man at NBC News.
KEVIN COLLIER I don't think there are very many reporters out there who don't look at something like the Pentagon Papers, and say, you know, there is this kind of almost ideal scenario where a dream source will land this incredible file set or document in your lap. And it will be one of the biggest stories of a generation. And I think that primed a lot of reporters to think, wow, this could happen to me.
MICAH LOEWINGER Then the very notion of a leak fundamentally changed in 2010 with whistleblower Chelsea Manning.
NEWS REPORT American soldiers opening fire from an Apache helicopter.
AMERICAN SOLDIER Oh, yeah, look at that. Right through the windshield.
NEWS REPORT on what would turn out to be civilians, including children.
CHELSEA MANNING Everything that you need to know about warfare is right there. In one 47 minute video. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER That last voice is Manning discussing a classified video known as Collateral Murder, which she downloaded from military servers during the Iraq war. And then she gave to Julian Assange, who posted the video with a lot of other information to WikiLeaks, his website, which he started for this exact purpose. You know, a place for well-intentioned whistleblowers to leak information that was in the public interest.
NEWS REPORT So why WikiLeaks then?
CHELSEA MANNING I tried to go to The Washington Post first and I tried to go to The New York Times.
NEWS REPORT Over the course of four months, she leaked diplomatic cables, battlefield reports, more than 700,000 documents in all.
MICAH LOEWINGER And 3 years later, we had Edward Snowden's bombshell leak about the secret NSA surveillance program.
KEVIN COLLIER I think that led to a scenario where we, the press, were too primed to think that because files were secret and then hacked and then delivered to us, that meant that there was something inherently newsworthy about that. In 2016, when what we now know was Russian military intelligence, the GRU, hacking Democratic servers and the lead up to a very contentious presidential election. The large story was an adversary to the U.S. was attacking a presidential campaign and trying to influence elections.
NEWS REPORT WikiLeaks released some 20,000 emails from DNC staffers, which led to the resignation of Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Assange has already teased that he would be releasing documents with enough evidence to get Clinton arrested. [END CLIP]
KEVIN COLLIER I think some elements of the press were more guilty than others, and I think we'd largely recognize in retrospect that that was kind of getting played.
BRANDY ZADROZNY What happened with WikiLeaks is this pretty huge cautionary tale. Do you think that the DNC email hack changed how journalists approach leaks?
MICAH LOEWINGER One thing I don't think has changed since WikiLeaks is the fundamental calculus of the media weighing the newsworthiness of the leaked information against its potential harms.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Right. So like nude celebrity photos or somebody's random medical records, they're too harmful to publish in a legit media outlet. And it's not particularly newsworthy.
MICAH LOEWINGER Exactly. But at the same time...
KEVIN COLLIER If something was unbelievably newsworthy and it was a clear, let's say, Russian hacking operation, but it was legitimate, I think most outlets would still go for it.
KIM ZETTER There is no single standard. Every media outlet sort of decides on its own what it feels comfortable doing.
MICAH LOEWINGER That's Kim Zetter, a journalist covering cybersecurity, she's also the author of Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the launch of the World's First Digital Weapon. She points to an interesting decision that The New York Times made back in 2014 when North Korean hackers released emails from Sony employees.
KIM ZETTER They said that they would report on newsworthy things that other journalists discovered in sifting through the documents, but they themselves wouldn't sift through the documents.
BRANDY ZADROZNY It's a cop out, but also, what do you do? Like, you can't just ignore information.
MICAH LOEWINGER Yeah, I mean, like if a hacker reveals that Joe Biden is a robot and it seems credible, like, are we just going to pretend Joe Biden is not a robot?
BRANDY ZADROZNY Oh, my God. That's going to be a new conspiracy theory now, thank you.
MICAH LOEWINGER [LAUGHS] It started here. But while the times might be a little shy with this kind of hack and leak thing, other groups are actively pushing the boundaries.
LORAX HORNE There isn't another place now that would publish hacks and leaks. The way that we do.
MICAH LOEWINGER This is Lorax Horne, a journalist with a nonprofit called Distributed Denial of Secrets or DDos Secrets for Short. They refer to themselves as a journalism collective.
LORAX HORNE The word collective is meant to imply a sort of horizontal structure and a lack of centralized leadership. A group of people who can disagree with each other and correct course if that's what needs to happen.
MICAH LOEWINGER The notion of a more ethical version of WikiLeaks is really fascinating to me, but in many ways, ddosecrets is a lot like their predecessor. ddosecrets published hacked donation rules from a right wing crowdfunding site that showed that U.S. officials and police officers had donated to Kyle Rittenhouse’s relief fund after he killed two people in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Their latest release features chat logs from an anti-vaxx group in the UK demonstrating their strategy to lobby members of parliament, but their most notorious leak was released during the George Floyd protest last year.
NEWS REPORT The BlueLeaks data dump includes 269 gigabytes of hacked law enforcement records posted online earlier this year. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER After the BlueLeaks went live, German police complied with U.S. law enforcement, raided their server in Berlin, and then pushed ddosecrets onto the dark web, where they are now.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Fascinating. So can anyone access their files like WikiLeaks?
MICAH LOEWINGER I think like 90 percent of the files they host on their site are available to the public. Anyone can download it. 10 percent,
BRANDY ZADROZNY the Good Stuff.
MICAH LOEWINGER Yeah, the data sets that are most likely to contain potentially sensitive information, that's only available to journalists and researchers. When they receive information from a hacker, they explain what they believe the motivations of the hacker might be, political or otherwise. They're also careful not to break the law that the Department of Justice is using to prosecute Julian Assange right now.
LORAX HORNE Basically, the second that you talk to one of us while you were in the course of committing the breach, then you would be able to testify against us. And we're not really interested in a charge under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and so, yeah, that will burn a source pretty quickly.
MICAH LOEWINGER How do you know you can trust a hacker?
LORAX HORNE Oh, you can't. We say the data speaks for itself and that data is only a part of the story.
MICAH LOEWINGER How can you possibly be sure when you're, when we're talking about terabytes of information that there may not be sensitive personal information like, let's say my Social Security number or my credit card number?
LORAX HORNE I don't think we can know. We do our best to review data sets and to put things in the limited distribution category when we think that there's a high probability of their being personally identifiable information. The distribution of secrets hasn't created the world that we're in, but so far, I'm quite happy with the work that we've done and with the ability to manage that risk.
BRANDY ZADROZNY There's something about that phrasing that makes me deeply uncomfortable.
MICAH LOEWINGER Why?
BRANDY ZADROZNY Before something is published or goes on the air, I'm sure of it. And so I think maybe it's just that not knowing, I just, if you're a journalist and you don't do that.
MICAH LOEWINGER Yeah, I understand that. They are actively testing the limits of journalism because the hacker landscape is different than it was when Julian Assange was still leaking.
NEWS REPORT Cyber criminals are using ransomware as a tool that in this case could block hospitals from accessing their own data.
NEWS REPORT Ransomware attack targeted Colonial Pipeline and forced the company to shut down over the weekend.
NEWS REPORT Small Newhall School District in California was attacked last fall. A teacher, payroll, grades and lesson plans locked up for nearly two weeks as hackers demanded big money. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Between 2019 and 2020, ransomware attacks rose by 158 percent in North America and over 60 percent worldwide, and hackers have turned to a new trend called "double extortion."
BRANDY ZADROZNY What is double extortion?
MICAH LOEWINGER Normally, if you want your data back, you pay the ransom, right? That's just regular old extortion. But people are getting a little wiser to this whole ransomware thing and they're saying either I'm not going to pay the ransom or they back up their data all the time. So the double extortion is when the hackers also threaten to leak the data if they don't get their money, which is what happened earlier this year to Jones Day one of the biggest law firms in the country.
LORU LIGHTFOOT This entity that supposedly hacked these emails tried to get a ransom from Jones Day, which was not paid, and then from the city, which we obviously didn't pay. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER That's Lori Lightfoot, the mayor of Chicago. The city government actually got mixed up in the Jones day hack because of something that happened back in 2019.
NEWS REPORT Anjannette Young, a social worker, had just finished her shift at the hospital when 12 Chicago police officers raided her home.
ANJANETTE YOUNG And it happened so fast I didn't have time to put on clothes.
NEWS REPORT She was completely naked, surrounded by all male officers. Young tells the raid team at least 43 times they are in the wrong place. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER After the botched raid, Young began to press charges against the city, which is why Mayor Lightfoot asked the law firm Jones Day to review police policies. Basically figure out how to stop this from happening again in the future, which in turn exposed the city to the ransomware attack earlier this year.
NEWS REPORT City Hall emails, 60000 of them, provide a glimpse into how Mayor Lightfoot and her team operate. The hacked emails were posted online by Distributed Denial of Secrets. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Some of the emails revealed how the city was like quietly scraping together money for a new police drone program during this time that they were trying to earn back trust with the public. And the reason I use this Anjanette Young example is that it's actually kind of a rare and novel example of traditional news outlets like Reuters, CBS and Chicago Sun-Times, not just reporting on ransomware hacks, but actually digging into the content of what was leaked to the dark web, which, of course, is thanks to ddosecrets, because they're the ones who went out, got the leak, and then repackaged the emails in a way that was easier for journalists to sift through. And now they currently host about 30 data sets from other ransomware attacks.
LORAX HORNE WikiLeaks didn't have to consider the question as like, how is this different from other hacked data? If it's economic versus another mode of–
MICAH LOEWINGER political.
LORAX HORNE Yeah.
MICAH LOEWINGER Do you think they're fundamentally different?
LORAX HORNE Fundamentally, no. Data that comes from a ransomware hack. Sometimes its higher value data because it's been used to extort an action, and so it's been collected by someone who paid a lot of attention to this company and to what data they would most not like to lose.
KIM ZETTER Here's the thing, that leaked data is going to get used even if the media doesn't use it.
MICAH LOEWINGER Kim Zetter.
KIM ZETTER Corporation's competitors are going to use it, they are going to lap up that data. There are also foreign intelligence agencies that will be sifting through this information.
MICAH LOEWINGER It still feels like we're sort of playing into their hand, though.
KIM ZETTER Right. That gives the ransomware attackers leverage over the victim. You know, journalists using it, of course, is amplifying it in ways that it might not otherwise be amplified and also rewarding the attackers who steal it because they're getting the attention that they wanted for it.
BRANDY ZADROZNY So at the start of this piece, you said you had no idea how you felt about reporting on hacked data. Do you have any clarity now?
MICAH LOEWINGER If I'm being honest? Not really. I think what's clear to me now is that it's like a total minefield out there. You don't know who you can trust. You don't know what information you can trust. You kind of have to be watching your back, trying to verify as much as you can all the time. But I think one thing I have learned is and maybe this is like, widely applicable in journalism in general, is that you don't actually have to hide from the unknowns. You can embrace them.
KIM ZETTER ProPublica recently published a whole series on leaked tax returns that exposed that, you know, Jeff Bezos hadn't been paying taxes and all of these other really wealthy people had found loopholes to not pay taxes, and that's definitely newsworthy. They concluded that even if this was data that was intentionally stolen by a nation state or some other hacker with an agenda, even a political agenda, what came down to it was that this was newsworthy information. But I think that ProPublica did a really responsible thing, is saying we grappled with this question and this is what we concluded. I think you engender trust with your readers when you provide as much transparency as you can.
BRANDY ZADROZNY I actually have something for you that I thought might help you make a decision about maybe your future story.
MICAH LOEWINGER OK. All right. What do you got?
BRANDY ZADROZNY So I'm a librarian, as you know.
MICAH LOEWINGER Yes, I know.
BRANDY ZADROZNY So I was trying to find older examples of when we grappled with technology and privacy and issues like that. And I found this paper by Carl Hausman. He was writing for the Journal of Mass Media Ethics, and this was in 1994. Hausman is looking in 1994 at these, what he calls, computer sifted information. And also it's called re-massaged information. Basically, it's data collected for one reason, but used for another. And he specifically talks about this bill that was meant to restrict access to motor vehicle information. And this is during the time when all of that information was sold by the state. It was your home address, your height, your weight, medical restrictions on your license. And in a lot of states, actually, your Social Security number. That was all open season for journalists and the general public for 5 bucks in 1993.
MICAH LOEWINGER That's just insane. [LAUGHS]
BRANDY ZADROZNY I know! Who knew? Yeah. And this guy and a lot of other people said that it wasn't the public's right to know, and it wasn't journalists’ right to know. He testified before the House Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights actually in favor of that bill. And so it actually passed. And that is why we now do not have that data available. And it's why you had to get it from a hack.
MICAH LOEWINGER That's crazy. [SIGHS] I was fully about to end this story by saying that I'd come around to the fact that the data's out there, and as long as I'm able to verify by other means that this car belongs to the person I think it belongs to, then using the hacked data as a jumping off point isn't such a big deal. But now you have me kind of scratching my head and I've got to think about it.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Well, good luck to you. And thank you so much, Micah.
MICAH LOEWINGER Thank you.
BRANDY ZADROZNY OTM Reporter, Micah Lowinger. Coming up, a priest is outed, and Catholic media are in the spotlight. This is On the Media.
BRANDY ZADROZNY This is On the Media, I'm Brandy's Zadrozny. Thanks to Micah's reporting, we all have a better sense of how journalists are navigating the use of hacked or stolen data in their reporting, but what about data that's been purchased? Last week, The Pillar, a substack dedicated to Catholic news, used a mysterious data set to identify a high ranking Catholic priest, a monsignor. His name has been widely reported elsewhere, but we're not going to say it here. They used the data to identify the priest as a user of the hookup app Grindr. Next, they plotted out his movements from his home, to work, to gay bars, and private residences. It was all made possible by data that Grindr itself collected. Data subsequently made available for legal purchase by a data broker, which somehow got into Pillar's hands. The priest resigned from his post at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops the day the story broke. I asked Sara Morrison, a data and privacy reporter at Recode at Vox, how this data came up for sale in the first place.
SARA MORRISON You have the apps on your phone, and a lot of times they'll ask you for your location in order to work, and that data will not just go to the app itself, but a lot of times the app will have code in it that sends it to a bunch of other places. Facebook's one of them, Google's one of them. And then there's probably a bunch of other companies that you have never heard of and you don't really know that this is happening. You think you're using an app, you think you're giving that app your data, you're giving it to who knows who else, or some of these companies might just buy it directly from the app developers, but what they end up with is very granular data.
BRANDY ZADROZNY That data is collected under the pretense that it's anonymous, right? So how was the Pillar able to identify the monsignor from what they call commercially available records, I think, of app signal data?
SARA MORRISON The term that a lot of privacy experts like to use is not anonymized, but de-identified, because this can be re-identified depending on how it's stored. So if you just know a device is going to certain places and they're spending time at night there, it's not that hard to correlate with a specific person.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Cross referencing, right? So if someone knows that I work at 30 Rock and knows where I live, well, there probably aren't so many people going to those two places consecutively, and boom, there I am.
SARA MORRISON Yeah, exactly.
BRANDY ZADROZNY OK, I'm going to ask you about the ethical questions that this is raising for a journalist who use or want to use this kind of data. But first, you say that an ethical line was crossed way back when the data was initially collected. How so?
SARA MORRISON So I don't think the ethical line was crossed by the journalists. I think the issue is that this data exists in the first place, and you don't really know that your data is being collected this way or who it's going to. I think The Pillar said, well, you know, this guy consented to this. So, you know, it's fair game.
BRANDY ZADROZNY By he agreeing to consent to it, is that like in the terms of service, that thing that nobody reads?
SARA MORRISON Yeah, but they always say your data is anonymized, so I think it's very reasonable for people to assume that they're anonymous and it just used to like, market products to you, right?
BRANDY ZADROZNY Are there any rules around who brokers are allowed to share this data with?
SARA MORRISON You know, not really. Apple and Google have like, App Store rules that say you can't sell granular location data sourced from your apps, but Apple and Google are not the police. And actually the police can sometimes buy location data that they use rather than getting a warrant. So it can go to a lot of people, government agencies buy this stuff for investigations. So my point has been for a long time, and I think others, too, that we don't have laws governing how this data is collected, stored or shared. And so nobody gets to know where their data is going and who gets it, and that's just an environment for all kinds of abuse. And this is a story that demonstrates that.
BRANDY ZADROZNY OK, so what kind of awful future does this new story signal, and what can we do to stop it?
SARA MORRISON I would say it more signals an awful present. These companies will say self-regulation is something we do. That's OK, whatever, not enough. So I would say real laws we've seen, like the European Union has a law, California has, Virginia and Colorado have laws. If there's a bright spot to a story like this, I think it better illustrates to people how this data is collected and how it can be used. As a privacy reporter, I think one of the things I struggle with the most is trying to explain how the stuff works. If somebody steals something from your house, or somebody follows you around on the street, you see them. With this stuff, you maybe see an ad for a product that you just bought, and there is when you go, "oh, that's creepy." So I sort of hope an article like this illustrates and shows people the extent of all of this and the power and invasiveness that these companies can have over you.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Sara, thank you so much.
SARA MORRISON Thanks for having me.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Sara Morrison covers privacy and personal data for Recode at Vox. Morrison says the outing of a priest using commercially available Grindr location data has implications for all of us, but the story written by and for Catholics also has something to tell us about the state of American Catholicism and its media. In The Pillar article, the authors also focused on how Grindr has been involved in the abuse of children, all the while admitting there's no evidence to suggest that the priest was ever in contact with minors through Grindr. We reached out to the founders of The Pillar for comment, but didn't hear back. However, they did publish a statement on Twitter saying, quote, There is no indication at all that the leader in question was using the app for any purposes pertaining to minors, and we would not wish to insinuate anything to the contrary. According to Michael O'Loughlin, a national correspondent at the Catholic media organization America, The Pillar’s use of brokered location data to target an individual might be new, but the scapegoating of gay priests within the Catholic Church is not. Mike, welcome to the show.
MICHAEL O'LOUGHLIN Thanks for having me.
BRANDY ZADROZNY So the Catholic Church teaches that sex is morally permissible only between a heterosexual married couple, but according to estimates from priests and researchers, gay men make up at least 30 to 40 percent of Catholic clergy in the US. In the general population, it's around 4 percent. Why such a high percentage in the church?
MICHAEL O'LOUGHLIN It's a good question. Why are gay men attracted to the priesthood? And there's a lot of theories. There have been some studies, but one idea is back in the 1960s, the church undertook a renewal and reform effort commonly referred to as Vatican II. And at that time, a lot of priests left the priesthood because they had been hopeful that the church would start to allow married priests, and when the Vatican decided that was not going to be the case, they left. And the theory goes that as a result, the proportion of gay priests, the priests who stayed, was much higher than the general population. And then that trend has continued.
BRANDY ZADROZNY And what about Catholic leaders blaming gay priests for their own shortcomings?
MICHAEL O'LOUGHLIN Gay priests in the church have faced a lot of criticism throughout the decades. Back in the 1960s, as this reform effort was going through, some Catholics who were not happy with some of the changes in liturgy, some of the more liberalizing aspects of the church, when they began to realize that there were a number of gay priests, they kind of started blaming them for what they didn't like in the church. Fast forward into the 1980s with HIV and AIDS coming onto the scene. A number of priests were involved in HIV and AIDS ministry, which effectively outed them. And later on into the 90s, a number of priests began dying from HIV and AIDS. It becomes this realization that the church's teaching against homosexuality in the public square, but many of its leaders are gay men, many of them celibate and maintaining their vows, some of them not, as evidenced by deaths from HIV.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Did that lead to a realization of hypocrisy or did something else happen?
MICHAEL O'LOUGHLIN Unfortunately, as we move through the 1980s of the 90s, it becomes more clear that there's a sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. And when The Boston Globe reveals the extent of it, in the early 2000s,
BRANDY ZADROZNY That was the spotlight investigation?
MICHAEL O'LOUGHLIN Yep, and as a result, you have this knee jerk reaction among church leaders to blame gay priests. There's this attack really at every level of the church that says gay men are not suited to be priests because they're a threat to children. And you have this really unfortunate conflation between homosexuality and pedophilia. The Vatican eventually cracks down and says gay men can not be priests because it creates conditions ripe for sexual abuse of minors. And that's continued on through the last couple of decades, but it's simply not true. There's been many studies, the John Jay study conducted by US bishops following the 2002 sex abuse crisis found that it wasn't true. There was no connection between gay priests and sexual abuse of minors, but it's a trope that just won't die in the church. In The Pillar, of course, there was more than a thousand words devoted to sexual abuse of minors, even though that's something the monsignor had not been accused of.
BRANDY ZADROZNY The priest who The Pillar outed was linked with or responsible in some way for child protection efforts within the Catholic Church. And the Pillar says that that is why it's newsworthy. Do you buy it?
MICHAEL O'LOUGHLIN There is a nuanced position that when priests are leading double lives, it does create a culture of secrecy where there is a possibility that cover up and abuse could happen because a lot of people have a lot to lose. Priests are called to a life of celibacy and chastity, and if a priest is breaking that, and other priests know about it, it becomes harder to report other abuse because everyone has things to lose. The Pillar report seems to go beyond that, though, and say because he was a gay priest suspected to be engaged in sexual activity, that there was somehow some connection to sexual abuse. And that just isn't the case.
BRANDY ZADROZNY And a focus on a trope ignores the real causes.
MICHAEL O'LOUGHLIN It does. And many victims groups have come out and said that they want nothing to do with these accusations. That activists and publications like this that ostensibly say they're out there to help protect victims and prevent future abuse. These groups are saying, no, this is not something we believe. We want the real causes of abuse, such as clericalism and cover up. Those are the things that need to be addressed, not the issue of gay priests.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Now, before this story, I had never heard of The Pillar or its founders, Ed Condon and JD Flynn.
MICHAEL O'LOUGHLIN Ed Condon and JD Flynn were editors at a conservative Catholic news agency called Catholic News Agency that is part of a conservative global empire of Catholic news. There is a television network called EWTN, which is available all around the world, heavily financed by conservative Catholic money in the United States. It owns Catholic News Agency, which was set up really to push a conservative, traditionalist vision of Catholicism both in the United States and around the world.
BRANDY ZADROZNY The Catholic Fox News?
MICHAEL O'LOUGHLIN Some have said that. There are personalities on EWTN who are also Fox News contributors. EWTN gave lots of airtime to the Trump administration. Ed and JD were editors at Catholic News Agency. Both of them have long careers in the church. They worked for the institution for what some people might describe as more conservative elements in the church before becoming journalists at CNA. And then they struck out on their own.
BRANDY ZADROZNY The Pillar founders were both canon lawyers. First of all, what's a canon lawyer? And secondly, has that role ever been in conflict with the journalism?
MICHAEL O'LOUGHLIN A canon lawyer is someone who navigates the church's legal structure. So, the Vatican has a set of legal codes that include things like marriage annulments or priests have certain rights under canon law. So, for example, you can't just dismiss someone from the priesthood. They would have to be some sort of trial. And often priests will hire canon lawyers to help them navigate this complex process. In terms of conflict of interest, the National Catholic Reporter, which is seen as a more liberal media outlet than the Catholic Church, reported that content appears to have represented an archbishop accused of sexual misconduct in a Vatican trial. And the news agency where they worked at the time reported on this case, but didn't disclose that one of its top editors was acting as a lawyer throughout this canon law process.
BRANDY ZADROZNY How influential is conservative Catholic media, more broadly?
MICHAEL O'LOUGHLIN Conservative Catholic media in the United States is hugely influential, both here in the US, among Catholics and globally in terms of fighting the agenda of Pope Francis, who many conservative Catholics see as too liberal, too progressive in his reform effort. So here in the United States, you have conservative Catholic media who have aligned themselves pretty clearly with the Republican Party. During the Trump presidency, you had many Trump officials appearing on EWTN, the Global Catholic News Network, based here in the US. President Trump himself was interviewed on the network, several of his top officials were given plenty of airtime, and it's this group that's really behind the idea that to be a Catholic in the United States today means to be a Republican voter. Abortion, homosexuality, those are the issues they focus on quite often. The current debate around whether President Joe Biden, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who are both Catholics who believe in abortion rights, whether they should be able to receive communion, that's an effort that's really been driven by conservative Catholic media outlets here in the United States. In terms of the globe, these US based outlets are really influencing the conversation around Pope Francis. The pope came in and wanted to sort of reform the tone of the church. One of his earliest comments was he said the church had been too obsessed with abortion, same sex marriage, and he wanted to focus on the church's wider social justice mission. In the previous few years, we've seen these conservative Catholic news outlets here in the United States provide air time and space to his opponents and really push this anti Pope Francis agenda around the world.
BRANDY ZADROZNY What struck me about The Pillar was it seemed like a new chapter in niche journalism. So we are used to places like Church Militant, I know what that is. I know it's an extreme publication, but I think Substack has opened up a whole new opportunity and planet for these people or publications who are not as clearly defined.
MICHAEL O'LOUGHLIN Yeah, I think that's accurate. And I think in terms of The Pillar, you have two individuals who, to their credit, are very connected in the church. In one of their stories, they reported that they had an hour-long meeting with the Vatican secretary of state, which is just an unbelievable get for an independent journalist. So you do have these individuals who are connected in the church, who no longer have editors, who maybe push back against some of these kinds of stories. And they seem willing to engage in methods that even some of the more conservative outlets, such as their former employer, refused to do. In these fringe groups like Church Militant, LifeSite News that are really activist organizations that sort of parade as media outlets. They've been targeting gay priests for a while now. Homosexuality is an issue that they're really just obsessed with exposing the church. The Pillar, with this article, seems to be presenting itself as a more polished version, maybe of Church Militant. Willing to use these dirty tricks to advance its agenda while maintaining an air of respectability because of the founders backgrounds and training and experience running a news agency. So there does seem to be this rogue element here of well-connected Catholics who now are acting as something of activists, or journalists, depending on your point of view.
BRANDY ZADROZNY The Pillar has denied that they are mounting a witch hunt on gay priests. How does an article like this affect gay priests?
MICHAEL O'LOUGHLIN There are a large number of gay priests in the United States, and many of them the faithful lives committed to their vows of chastity and celibacy, but like all human beings, there are some who simply mess up. And as a result of these articles, I think there's a lot of fear. Will they be presented in the media as someone who is living a double life when in reality they simply messed up one or two times. So even gay priests who are faithful to their vows, they just feel targeted and they already feel that they're in a difficult position because they identify as gay, but work for an organization that tends to fight gay rights. And this just feels like another burden they have to contend with.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Ugh, I'm so sorry.
MICHAEL O'LOUGHLIN Yeah.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Thanks so much, Mike.
MICHAEL O'LOUGHLIN Thanks for having me.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Michael O'Loughlin is national correspondent at the Catholic media organization America. He is the author of a forthcoming book, Hidden Mercy: AIDS, Catholics and the Untold Stories of Compassion in the Face of Fear. Thanks so much for having me this week.
On the Media is produced by Leah Feder, Micah Loewinger, Elouise Blondiau, Rebecca Clark-Callender and Molly Schwartz with help from Ellen Li. Xandra Ellen writes our newsletter and our show was edited by our executive producer Katya Rogers. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Adriene Lily.
On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. Brooke Gladstone will be back in a few weeks. I'm Brandy Zadrozny.
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