Japan Is Getting An Anonymous Whistleblowing Platform, But Will Journalists Use It?

March 2, 2015

By J.T. Quigley via Tech In Asia

A Japanese university professor is building Japan’s first anonymous web platform for whistleblowers.

Whistleblowing.jp will provide an untraceable way for journalists to receive leaked information without fear of compromising a source – of paramount importance since the passage of Japan’s so-called State Secrets Law in December 2013.

The law, which went into effect about two months ago, carries penalties of up to 10 years in prison for government leakers and five years behind bars for journalists who “encourage” them. The conservative administration of prime minister Shinzo Abe, which championed the legislation, maintains that the law will only apply to Wikileaks-style intelligence leaks that threaten Japan’s national security. Critics counter that the law offers a vague definition of “state secret” and could be used to both crack down on political dissent and stifle the public’s right to know about a variety of important issues – including the impact of the Fukushima nuclear disaster and increasingly strained relations with China and South Korea. A number of blogs relating to such controversial topics, hosted on Japan’s popular Ameba platform, were taken down on the eve of the law’s implementation. The blogs were restored within days, but their authors were left to wonder if it was a thinly-veiled warning.

Masayuki Hatta, an economics lecturer at Surugadai University and self-proclaimed “rogue researcher and hacker wannabe from Japan,” unveiled the site in December. “We’re actually not like Wikileaks, since the site itself won’t publish any leaks,” Hatta explained at a recent Hacks/Hackers meetup in Tokyo. “We’re more similar to the Dutch website Publeaks. Our goal is to connect whistleblowers and journalists in a safer way.”

Whistleblowing.jp can only be accessed on the Tor network. Tor, short for “the onion router,” was initially conceived by the US Navy’s research laboratory before going open source in 2004. It anonymizes internet browsing by directing traffic through a global network consisting of thousands of volunteer relays. Data, including a user’s IP address, is encrypted as it’s sent through each successive relay. The final relay decrypts the innermost layer of encryption – the middle of the “onion” – and sends the original data through to its final destination without revealing the user’s IP address.

Once a leaker accesses Whistleblowing.jp, he or she can select registered “receivers” (journalists) to share information with. That information is then delivered by GlobaLeaks, adding an additional layer of anonymity. Data is further encrypted using GNU Privacy Guard (GnuPG).

“Tor is somewhat mature now, but 10 years ago it was quite unstable,” Hatta says. “Now it has about 10,000 relays in the world. It’s finally usable. GlobaLeaks is also usable, after being a mess five years ago. More and more similar sites are also popping up, like SecureDrop.”

SecureDrop was the brainchild of the late Aaron Schwartz, the hacktivist and entrepreneur who co-developed RSS and Reddit. Schwartz committed suicide after a federal indictment for downloading millions of academic journals without permission. SecureDrop is now used by major western media outlets like The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Forbes.

It must be noted that, despite Whistelblowing.jp’s strong emphasis on anonymity, nothing that’s done online is ever 100 percent safe from prying eyes. Last November, more than 400 supposedly hidden sites operating on Tor were shut down in a global sting operation initiated by the FBI, ICE, and Europol. While many offered illicit services, like notorious online drug market Silk Road’s second iteration, some were simply acting as relays for Tor’s anonymization network – alluding to the possibility that certain law enforcement agencies view attempts at covering your digital tracks as a crime in itself. Earlier in 2014, members of the non-profit Tor Project also identified “rogue relays” that were attempting to redirect traffic and reveal users’ original IP addresses.

Not a ‘whistleblower-friendly culture’

Hatta says that Whistleblowing.jp is almost ready for a full release, pending some UI tweaks. Mainichi Shimbun, Japan’s third-largest newspaper by circulation, began testing the service last week. “Most of the Japanese mass media has expressed interest, with the exception of the Sankei Shimbun [Japan’s most right-leaning newspaper],” Hatta adds. The English-language Japan Times and Reuters have also indicated interest.

In addition to improving the site itself, Hatta says that potential leakers and journalists must be trained how to use it. “The tech is easy, but everything else is tough. Japan isn’t a whistleblower-friendly culture. It’s also not an anonymous-friendly culture. [Japanese people] need an introduction to liberation technology.” Hatta admits that most tips that land on Whistleblowing.jp will be spam, but he estimates that “one percent will be very important.” Journalists will have to find a way to independently verify the authenticity of submissions.

There’s also the issue of funding – Hatta is covering the costs on his own for the time being. “Now, it’s a personal venture, but I’m looking for a host organization.” There’s also the frightening cost of potential legal fees down the road, and the risk that Whistleblowing.jp may already exist in a legal gray area from the point-of-view of the Japanese government. But Hatta doesn’t share these concerns, even though the State Secrets legislation may consider his service “encouragement” for leakers.

I’m not interested in publishing leaks myself, so I believe [Whistleblowing.jp] is covered by the freedom of the press, even under the State Secrets Law. I’m optimistic about that.

Even if Hatta’s service manages to attract individuals bold enough to blow the whistle, there’s the question of whether or not Japan’s lapdog press will follow through with reporting their leaks. Japanese news outlets are notoriously reluctant to cover controversial news. In 2011, for example, Michael Woodford, the first first non-Japanese CEO at Olympus, was fired after uncovering attempts to hide US$1.5 billion in losses. What was front-page news across much of the western world was barely mentioned in Japan.

Katsuto Momii, the president of Japanese public broadcaster NHK, invited scathing criticism last year when he said that reportage would follow the government line. At his first press conference after assuming the role in January 2014, Momii said that “it would not do for us to say ‘left’ when the government is saying ‘right.’” Earlier this month, he stirred the pot even further by announcing that NHK wouldn’t air programs about “comfort women” – the term for women, largely South Koreans, forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese imperial army during WWII – until the Abe administration clarifies its official stance on the issue.

The fact that Tor isn’t 100 percent impenetrable, in light of the State Secrets Law’s heavy penalties, may deter the few reporters willing to publish a potentially damaging scoop.

With Japan sliding even further down the ladder on global press freedom in 2014 – down to number 59 out of 180 countries surveyed by Reporters Without Borders, from its pre-State Secrets Law position of 22 – Hatta’s invention may help domestic journalists uncover important scoops. Whether they go forward with writing about them, however, remains unseen.

Image: EFF