Older Than Wikileaks, Cryptome Perseveres
New York — The FBI came calling after maps of urban rail tunnels and gas lines were posted online. Microsoft aggressively complained following the website’s publication of a confidential handbook on company policies for helping police. Other critics have gone further, warning that some of the postings could aid America’s enemies.
Yet Cryptome carries on.
The website, unfamiliar to the general public, is well-known in circles where intelligence tactics, government secrets and whistle-blowing are primary concerns. Since its creation in 1996, Cryptome has amassed more than 70,000 files — including lists of secret agents, high-resolution photos of nuclear power plants, and much more.
Its co-founder and webmaster, a feisty 77-year-old architect, doesn’t hesitate when asked why.
“I’m a fierce opponent of government secrets of all kinds,” says John Young. “The scale is tipped so far the other way that I’m willing to stick my neck out and say there should be none.”
Young describes several exchanges with federal agents over postings related to espionage and potential security breaches, though no charges have ever been filed. And he notes that corporate complaints of alleged copyright violations and efforts to shut Cryptome down have gone nowhere.
For Young, there’s a more persistent annoyance than these: the inevitable comparisons of Cryptome to WikiLeaks, the more famous online secret-sharing organization launched by Julian Assange and others in 2006.
Young briefly collaborated with WikiLeaks’ creators but says he was dropped from their network after questioning plans for multimillion-dollar fundraising. Cryptome operates on a minimal budget — less than $2,000 a year, according to Young, who also shuns WikiLeaks-style publicity campaigns.
“We like the scholarly approach — slow, almost boring,” says Young. He likens Cryptome to a “dusty, dimly lit library.”
That’s not quite the image that Reader’s Digest evoked in 2005, in an article titled “Let’s Shut Them Down.” Author Michael Crowley assailed Cryptome as an “invitation to terrorists,” notably because of its postings on potential security vulnerabilities.
Cryptome’s admirers also don’t fully buy into Young’s minimalist self-description.
“He lives by his ideals and doesn’t pull any punches,” said Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates for online free speech and privacy rights.
“People like John serve as a really important safety valve for the rest of us, as to what our government is up to,” Cohn said.
Young considers himself a freedom-of-information militant, saying he is unbothered by “the stigma of seeming to go too far.”
Claims that Cryptome aids terrorists or endangers intelligence agents are “hokum,” he said.
“We couldn’t possibly publish information to aid terrorists that they couldn’t get on their own,” he said, depicting his postings about security gaps as civic-minded.
“If you know a weakness, expose it, don’t hide it,” he said.
Young attributes his anti-authoritarian outlook to a hard-up childhood in West Texas as the son of an Odessa-based oil-field worker. He joined the Army at 17, serving in Germany and elsewhere in the mid-1950s, attended Texas Tech for a year, then transferred to Rice University in Houston, where he earned bachelor’s degrees in philosophy and architecture.
By the end of the 1960s, he was a widowed father of four, based in New York City with a master’s degree in architecture from Columbia University. He also developed a host of connections to social activists, due in part to his role as a sort of elder statesman among fellow graduate students during the 1968 campus protests at Columbia.
By 1973, he had his own architecture practice in New York, and in 1993 he met fellow architect/scholar Deborah Natsios, a CIA agent’s daughter who became his wife and colleague. They co-founded Cryptome in 1996 as an outgrowth of their involvement with Cypherpunks, an informal network which — early in the Internet era — was assessing the use of cryptography to shield private communications from government surveillance.
As a motto of sorts, the Cryptome home page offers a quote from psychiatrist Carl Jung: “The maintenance of secrets acts like a psychic poison which alienates the possessor from the community.”
The website says Cryptome welcomes classified and confidential documents from governments worldwide, “in particular material on freedom of expression, privacy, cryptology, dual-use technologies, national security, intelligence, and secret governance.”
Young attributes Cryptome’s longevity and stature to its legion of contributors, most of them anonymous, who provide a steady stream of material to post.
Among the most frequently downloaded of Cryptome’s recent postings were high-resolution photos of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Japan after it was badly damaged in the March 2011 tsunami/earthquake disaster.
Cryptome also was a pivotal outlet last year for amorous emails between national security expert Brett McGurk and Wall Street Journal reporter Gina Chon, which led McGurk to withdraw as the Obama administration’s nominee to be ambassador to Iraq.
Other documents on the site list names of people purported to be CIA sources, officers of Britain’s MI6 spy agency, and spies with Japan’s Public Security Investigation Agency.
Young says the posting about the Japanese agency prompted a phone call from the FBI in 2000, relaying a request from Japan’s Justice Ministry that the names be removed. Young recalls that the agents told him the disclosure would have been illegal in Japan, but was not a crime in the U.S., and the names still remain viewable on Cryptome.
Another exchange with the FBI came in November 2003, according to Young, when two agents paid him a visit to discuss recent Cryptome postings intended to expose national security gaps. The postings included maps and photos of rail tunnels and gas lines leading toward New York’s Madison Square Garden, where the Republican National Convention was to be held the next year.
The agents were polite, Young said, and made no assertion that he had broken any law.
Another confrontation occurred in 2010, when Cryptome posted Microsoft’s confidential Global Criminal Compliance Handbook, outlining its policies for conducting online surveillance on behalf of law enforcement agencies. Contending that the posting was a copyright violation, Microsoft asked that Cryptome be shut down by its host, Network Solutions. Criticism of Microsoft followed, from advocates of online free speech, and the complaint was withdrawn within a few days.
Young acts as gatekeeper for Cryptome — and material that looks “nutty,” he said, won’t make the cut. But he balks at editing the material that he does post, and doesn’t like to provide online commentary.
“We have an editorial role in selecting files, but we don’t tell people what to think about them,” he said. “It’s up to you to decide.”
Moreover, Young urges Cryptome’s patrons to be skeptical of anything placed on the site, given that the motives of the contributors may not be known.
“Cryptome, aspiring to be a free public library, accepts that libraries are chock full of contaminated material, hoaxes, forgeries, propaganda,” Young has written on the site. “Astute readers, seeking relief from manufactured and branded information, will pick and choose...”
Young is adamant that Cryptome will resist threats aimed at getting certain postings taken down. However, he says he sometimes accedes to requests from individuals to remove postings that they consider personally damaging.
Some of the material on Cryptome is visually powerful — for example a series of 4,200 photos of soldiers and other people killed and maimed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Another series displays photos and videos of political protests, ranging from the 2004 Republican convention and the more recent Occupy Wall Street movement to incidents in Mexico, Tibet, Greece, Russia and the Middle East.
Natsios has created a distinctive series of her own — intricate multimedia narratives tracking the evolution of modern-day security regimes. One looks at Greece in the Cold War era (http://www.cryptome.org/irredenta/ ) while another, titled Ring of Steel (http://bit.ly/NbVczX ) examines the expansion of surveillance and anti-terrorism activity by the New York Police Department in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Her father, Nicholas Natsios, served in the CIA for three decades, and she grew up overseas as he shifted from post to post, including stints in Vietnam, South Korea and Greece. Young, for all his interest in national security, recalls that his father-in-law, who died in 2004, would never discuss the CIA with him.
The joint Young-Natsios architecture business remains active; Young says it’s profitable enough to underwrite Cryptome’s operations. And the couple pursues an array of other interests, encompassing literature, philosophy, history and other fields.
As a scholar, Young has tackled topics ranging from water power systems to the link between mental health and architecture. One of his papers at Columbia was titled “Furniture and Ideology.”
Beyond academics, Young’s Columbia experience influenced his later avocations in other ways. In April 1968, he was among a group of graduate students who occupied the architecture school’s Avery Hall during campus-wide protests inspired by anti-war sentiments and opposition to a proposed gymnasium project.
In Across the Barricades, a book about the Avery Hall occupation, Young is depicted as playing a key role — after initially keeping so quiet that some students thought he was a police spy. In a brief speech to his comrades, four days into the occupation, Young urged them to embrace their communal strengths and capitalize on their individual skills.
In the space of five minutes, writes author Richard Rosenkranz, Young “had induced us to relax, restored our morale, and reintroduced us to the power of positive thinking.”
The occupation ended with police intervention and dozens of arrests. But Young said there was a positive legacy — the launch of an initiative called Urban Deadline, by him and other Avery veterans, that became a precursor for Cryptome with a mix of social activism and architecture projects.
In an epilogue to Rosenkranz’s book, Young describes himself as a staunch believer in participatory democracy, “where each man participates in the decision processes that affect him.”
To Cindy Cohn of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, that belief is embodied by Young’s commitment to Cryptome.
“It’s a very bare bones website, and I don’t think he cares that it’s run on a shoestring,” she said. “He thinks of it as a small, important thing that he does for the world. I think of it as old-school public service.”