What Is SecureDrop?
SecureDrop is an open-source whistleblower submission system that media organizations can use to securely accept documents from and communicate with anonymous sources.
In many of the recent leak prosecutions in the United States, sources have been investigated because authorities are able to retrieve both metadata and content of communications from third parties like email and phone providers in secret. SecureDrop attempts to completely eliminate third parties from the equation so that news organizations can challenge any legal orders before handing over any data.
SecureDrop also substantially limits the metadata trail that may exist from journalist-source communications in the first place. In addition, it attempts to provide a safer environment for those communications than regular corporate news networks, which may be compromised.
How It Works
Sources and journalists connect to SecureDrop using the Tor network (represented in the diagram above by the onion symbol). The SecureDrop software is running on premises on dedicated infrastructure (two physical servers and a firewall).
The following steps describe how a SecureDrop submission is submitted, received and reviewed:
A source (bottom left in the diagram) uploads a submission to the news organization using Tor Browser.
A journalist connects to SecureDrop using their Journalist Workstation (booted from a USB drive) and physically transfers files to the air-gapped Secure Viewing Station, a machine that is never connected on the Internet.
On the Secure Viewing Station, the journalist can view the document, process it (e.g., to remove metadata or potential malware), print it, or export it to a dedicated device.
Check out What makes SecureDrop Unique to read more about SecureDrop’s approach to keeping sources safe.
There are three main user roles that interact with a SecureDrop instance:
A source submits documents and messages by using Tor Browser (or Tails) to access the Source Interface: a public onion service. Submissions are encrypted in place on the Application Server as they are uploaded.
Journalists working in the newsroom use two machines to interact with SecureDrop. First, they use a Journalist Workstation running Tails to connect to the Journalist Interface, an authenticated onion service. Journalists download GPG-encrypted submissions and copy them to a Transfer Device (a thumb drive or DVD). Those submissions are then connected to the airgapped Secure Viewing Station (SVS) which holds the key to decrypt them. Journalists can then use the SVS to read, print, and otherwise prepare documents for publication. Apart from those deliberately published, decrypted documents are never accessed on an Internet-connected computer.
The SecureDrop servers are managed by a systems admin; for larger newsrooms, there may be a team of systems admins. The admin uses a dedicated Admin Workstation running Tails, connects to the Application and Monitor Servers over authenticated onion services, and manages them using Ansible.
The web application, which was originally called DeadDrop, was developed by Aaron Swartz in 2012 before his tragic death. The hardening guide and security environment was architected by James Dolan. Investigative journalist Kevin Poulsen originally managed the project. The New Yorker launched the first implementation and branded their version StrongBox in May 2013.
In October 2013, Freedom of the Press Foundation took over management and development of the open source project and re-named it SecureDrop. In the project’s early years at FPF, development was driven by James Dolan and Garrett Robinson. Today, SecureDrop is maintained by a small full-time development team at FPF and a growing volunteer community.
SecureDrop does not seek to re-invent the wheel. Instead it combines several well-respected tools into an application that is easier to use for sources and enforces the use of many security best practices by news organizations.
Among the tools used in and around the SecureDrop application are: Tor, GnuPG encryption, Apache, OSSEC, grsecurity, Ubuntu Server, the Tails operating system, and an air-gap to minimize exfiltration risks.
The SecureDrop application does not record your IP address, information about your browser, computer, or operating system. Furthermore, the SecureDrop pages do not embed third-party content or deliver persistent cookies to your browser. The server will only store the date and time of the newest message sent from each source. Once you send a new message, the time and date of your previous message is automatically deleted.
While we can’t guarantee 100% security (no organization or product can), the goal of SecureDrop is to create a significantly more secure environment for sources to share information than exists through normal digital channels. Of course, there are always risks. That said, each release of SecureDrop with major architectural changes goes through a security audit by a reputable third party security firm.
Before major code changes are shipped, our policy is to have SecureDrop audited by a professional, third-party security firm. Five audits of SecureDrop have been completed so far:
The first audit of SecureDrop, conducted in the Spring of 2013, was conducted by a group of University of Washington researchers and Bruce Schneier, and can be found here.
After significant changes to the system, the second audit of SecureDrop was conducted by Cure53 at the end of 2013 and can be read here.
The fourth audit was conducted in summer 2015, also by iSEC Partners, and can be found in full here.
The most recent audit was independently undertaken by Leviathan Security on behalf of Sofwerx in late 2018, and can be found in full here.
In addition to these audits, we also have a bug bounty program hosted by Bugcrowd.
SecureDrop is a free and open source application that costs nothing to install. However, the application does require hardware that news organizations must purchase, including two servers, several USB sticks, an air-gapped computer, and a firewall.
We have created a recommended hardware guide; following these recommendations wherever possible will minimize incompatibility risks. We are aiming to offer a set of recommendations that work for organizations at different scales.
It is critical that the hardware is owned by the media organization and stored on its premises in a secure space.
The total cost of the hardware we recommend is $2,200 to $2,400, though it can be done for less if you are willing to sacrifice size and speed on the servers or are able to use recycled machines sourced from within your organization.
As part of priority support agreements and on a pro-bono basis for smaller news organizations, Freedom of the Press Foundation will visit your offices, help set up SecureDrop and train journalists to use it. (For pro-bono support, we request that our travel costs are covered.)
At SecureDrop’s heart is a pair of servers: the Application (“App”) Server, which runs the core SecureDrop software, and the Monitor (“Mon”) Server, which keeps track of the Application Server and sends out alerts if there’s a problem. These two servers run on dedicated hardware connected to a dedicated firewall appliance. They are typically located physically inside the newsroom, and must be physically located on-site within your organization’s premises.
- Application Server:
An Ubuntu server running two segmented Tor hidden services. The source connects to the Source Interface, a public-facing Tor Onion Service, to send messages and documents to the journalist. The journalist connects to the Journalist Interface, an authenticated Tor Onion Service, to download encrypted documents and respond to sources.
- Monitor Server:
An Ubuntu server that monitors the Application Server with OSSEC and sends email alerts.
The servers connect to the network via a dedicated hardware firewall.
The SecureDrop application environment consists of at least two computers, in addition to the servers described above:
- Secure Viewing Station:
A physically-secured and air-gapped laptop running the Tails operating system from a USB stick, that journalists use to decrypt and view submitted documents.
In addition to the Secure Viewing Station computers, each journalist will also need a computer to connect to SecureDrop:
- Journalist Workstation:
The computer used by the journalist to connect to the Journalist Interface to download encrypted documents that they will transfer to the Secure Viewing Station. The Journalist Workstation is also used to respond to sources via the Journalist Interface.
Depending on your organization’s threat model, the Journalist Workstation can either be the journalist’s every-day laptop or a dedicated computer. In either case, it is recommended that journalists always use the Tails operating system on their Journalist Workstation when connecting to the Journalist Interface.
SecureDrop administrators will also require a computer to connect to SecureDrop and perform administrative tasks. This computer is referred to as the Admin Workstation, and must be capable of running the Tails operating system. The Admin Workstation may also be used as a Journalist Workstation if necessary.
Planning & Preparation
Setting up SecureDrop is a multi-step process. Before getting started, you should make sure that you’re prepared to operate and maintain it. You’ll need a systems admin who’s familiar with Linux, the GNU utilities, and the Bash shell. You’ll need the hardware on which SecureDrop runs — this will normally cost $2000-$3000. The journalists in your organization will need to be trained in the operation of SecureDrop, and you’ll need to publish and promote your new SecureDrop instance afterwards — using your existing websites, mailing lists, and social media.
It is recommended that you have all of this planned out before you get started. If you need help, contact the Freedom of the Press Foundation who will be glad to help walk you through the process and make sure that you’re ready to proceed.
Once you are familiar with the architecture and have all the hardware, setting up SecureDrop will take at least a day’s work for your admin. We recommend that you set aside at least a week to complete and test your setup.
Provisioning & Training
Once SecureDrop is installed, journalists will need to be provided with accounts, two-factor credentials, workstations, and so on — and then trained to use these tools safely and reliably. You will probably also need to train additional backup admins so that you can be sure that your SecureDrop setup keeps running even when your main admin is on holiday.
Introducing staff to SecureDrop takes half a day. Training a group to use SecureDrop proficiently takes at least a day — and a single trainer can only work with so many people at once. You will probably need to run several training sessions to instruct an entire newsroom. Depending on staff availability, training and provisioning may take a week or more. If you have multiple offices, training will need to happen at each location. Again, the Freedom of the Press Foundation are happy to help you plan and train your team.
Once you have a SecureDrop instance and your team knows how to use it, you should test it thoroughly and then tell the world. The Freedom of the Press Foundation are happy to help you check that your SecureDrop setup is up-to-code and properly grounded. After that you’ll want to check out the best practices for your SecureDrop Landing Page and our guide to promoting your SecureDrop instance.