Micah Lee

Brandon Azad


The Metadata Trap: Whistleblowers in the Age of Surveillance and Big Data


Most people, including those who reach out to journalists, aren’t very aware of it, but we’re ALL under surveillance. Telecom companies and tech giants have access to nearly all of our private data, from our exact physical locations at any given time to the content of our text messages and emails, and they routinely share this data with governments when asked or compelled. Employer-owned devices track their users, and restricted databases log every search that’s made and every document that’s accessed with a username and timestamp. Personal devices, which time and again have gotten searched during leak investigations, contain incredibly detailed information, like browser histories and Signal/WhatsApp messages.

Whistleblowers aren’t spies. Because they’re ordinary people that notice something disturbing and want to do something about it, they have no training in how to circumvent this surveillance or even an awareness of all the places they’re being watched.

Using legal documents as sources, I’m going to discuss the evidence used against the eight (so far) US government workers that the Trump Administration has prosecuted for talking to and sharing documents with the media, and what this means for the safety of whistleblowers in a world where everything we do is being logged. The examples in this session are US-centric, but the surveillance is global, so the lessons are global as well.


Micah Lee is The Intercept's Director of Information Security. He is a computer security engineer and an open-source software developer who writes about technical topics like digital and operational security, encryption tools, whistleblowing, and hacking using language that everyone can understand without dumbing it down. He develops security and privacy tools such as OnionShare and semiphemeral.

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