(CN) – Offering a fully encrypted ecosystem to activists or journalists whose efforts might vex more powerful entities, celebrated anarchist Barrett Brown this summer rolled out an internet platform called the Pursuance Project nearly 10 years in the making.
“It draws both from my experience with Anonymous and with what I have learned about what happens when people collaborate online when they have no pre-existing relationships,” Brown said in a phone interview. “Now that we have gone through this period where we have seen some of the things that can happen, and some of the things that can be done, and some of the problems that we run into, we know enough that we can make a better framework for this kind of activity in the future.”
In 2012 Brown learned firsthand about the perils of transparency activism when he was indicted on 12 federal charges related to the Anonymous hack of the private intelligence firm Stratfor.
Facing over a century in jail, the charges against Brown stemmed largely from a link he posted to Stratfor’s hacked emails in a chatroom for his crowdsource platform at the time, Project PM.
Prosecutors ultimately dropped most charges related to Stratfor as part of a plea deal, however, and Brown began working on the Pursuance Project in earnest shortly after his November 2016 release from prison.
The Pursuance Project has a board of directors that includes Icelandic parliamentarian Birgitta Jonsdottir, CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou and CIA officer-turned-bestselling author Barry Eisler.
Kiriakou, the first CIA analyst to confirm that the agency waterboarded prisoners with suspected ties to al-Qaida, served a 30-month prison sentence for leaking classified information to New York Times reporter James Risen.
He said in an interview that the Pursuance Project serves an obvious and critical need.
“When I was with the CIA, it was gospel that neither we nor NSA could spy on American citizens, right? It’s the law and it’s even a part of NSA’s charter: that they’re not allowed to spy on American citizens,” Kiriakou said. “But without Edward Snowden, we wouldn’t have any idea that our government was spying on us. And because our government is spying on us, we have to take measures into our own hands to ensure our own privacy and the privacy of researchers and activists. And so I think this is one of those ways to achieve that type of privacy.”
Touting the Pursuance Project’s ideals, Kiriakou said it has many of the same founding principles of WikiLeaks: “and that is that there ought to be something that is freely available, that it ought to be open source, and available to everybody and at the same time it ought to be secure, encrypted.”
The threat of mass surveillance is one that Brown notes the government has done little to dispel.
“Given what we’ve seen over the past five or six years, what’s been revealed about what the U.S. has done domestically, we’ve got no reason to believe that it’s on the whole a good idea and plenty of scenarios in which we can envision them being misused on a vast and irreversible basis,” Brown said.
Brown emphasized that the adversarial underpinnings of his Pursuance Project are by no means unlawful.
“The things that we want to do don’t require committing any crimes,” Brown said. “We will be in conflict, absolutely, with all these governments and institutions which we always have been, but most of the work is pretty mundane.”
“We’re going to be using all these tactics that we’ve seen that work, that make sense, that are fair, that contribute to the conversation, but we’re going to try to do them better, on a larger scale and try to develop newer methods of getting the right information in front of people in ways that ultimately does result in change.”
Brown, who has written for numerous publications, including The Huffington Post and Vanity Fair, stressed the importance of connecting activists with journalists. “There are many occasions in American history where people have accepted and endorsed outright crimes by those willing to correct those or expose those things,” he said. “Obviously, what comes to mind is the FBI’s Cointelpro program, which was one of the most devastating, unknown assaults on democracy that we’ve seen in this country. That was exposed by a bunch of anti-war activists breaking into the FBI office and sending the documents to Congress or else it would have never been exposed. That is sort of the precedent that I look to in particular in explaining this to a mainstream audience.”
Helping journalists covering the prisons in their districts is just one opportunity that the Pursuance Project can bring to life.
“We are going to show them how easy it is to file FOIA claims, to get prison grievance forms that are filed that they can use to identify problem areas, and identify stories,” he said.
Just off the heels of a successful Kickstarter campaign, and the first board meeting around corner, Brown said his Pursuance Project team is focused now on making the transition into a formal nonprofit.
At the July gathering of the conference series Hackers on Planet Earth, Brown said his interview by national-security reporter Spencer Ackerman was one of the headline events.
With the Pursuance Project’s director of strategy Claire Peters and director of operations Annalise Burkhart in tow, Brown touted a number of meetings with other organizations and key individuals like Chelsea Manning.
Another whistleblower involved in the Pursuance Project is Thomas Drake, a former senior executive at the National Security Agency who in 2010 became the first American to be charged for espionage in nearly four decades.
Drake lacks a formal role with the endeavor but spoke about it earlier this year at RichtsCon 2018. As part of the deal, Drake pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor count of misusing the NSA’s computer system. He received a sentence of probation after the government dropped all charges on the eve of his trial.
Brown said there are more talks on the horizon. In October, he’ll be speaking via videolink at University of London’s Logan Symposium, and in person at the Tennessee Library Association’s annual freedom of speech dinner.
In addition to talks for Buffalo University and security giant McAfee, Brown said he is working on the final draft of a memoir, “My Glorious Defeats,” set for release in 2019 by Farrar Straus Giroux under the Macmillan publishing umbrella.