Above Photo: Freedom of the Press Foundation
It was with an extremely heavy heart that we recently learned our friend and former colleague James Dolan—one of the co-creators of SecureDrop and Freedom of the Press Foundation’s first full time employee—took his own life over the holidays. He was 36.
In 2012, James worked with Aaron Swartz and journalist Kevin Poulsen to build the original prototype of SecureDrop, the open source whistleblower submission system, which was then called DeadDrop. Poulsen described James’s role in the project’s creation in the New Yorker in 2013:
In New York, a computer-security expert named James Dolan persuaded a trio of his industry colleagues to meet with Aaron to review the architecture and, later, the code. We wanted to be reasonably confident that the system wouldn’t be compromised, and that sources would be able to submit documents anonymously—so that even the media outlets receiving the materials wouldn’t be able to tell the government where they came from. James wrote an obsessively detailed step-by-step security guide for organizations implementing the code. “He goes a little overboard,” Aaron said in an e-mail, “but maybe that’s not a bad thing.”
Beyond a couple references on our website, that New Yorker story is virtually all that is in the public domain about James’s involvement in the project—and that’s how he preferred it. James was an intensely private and modest person, and despite the fact the SecureDrop soon got a lot of attention when Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF) took the project over, he constantly insisted that Aaron deserved all the credit.
Yet SecureDrop would not currently exist without James, and he deserves all the commendation in the world for making it what it is today.
In January 2013, Aaron Swartz himself committed suicide as the US government was attempting to prosecute him for violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act related to allegedly copying academic articles from JSTOR. SecureDrop was an unrelated side project he was working on at the time. A few months after Aaron’s tragic death, Kevin Poulsen donated the SecureDrop project to FPF, in the hopes that we could revive it and get it in a place where more news organizations could use it.
At that point, James was literally the only person in the world who knew all the ins and outs of the system, how to install it, and how to make it better. He had a high-paying computer security job at a large company by then, but I asked him if he’d be willing to come work for us so we could try to get SecureDrop into more newsrooms. We had hardly any money at the time, yet he immediately agreed—even though it meant taking an 80% pay cut. (Later, he would even refuse to accept a raise, insisting that we use any new funding to hire additional people to work on the project instead.)
He was our first full-time employee at Freedom of the Press Foundation, and quickly set out to teach other developers, contributors, and anyone interested in how the system worked. He poured his heart and soul into the work, traveling to newsrooms around North America to teach IT staffs and journalists in person how to install and use SecureDrop. He completely reworked the installation process, he pushed us to get independent security audits of the system, and he helped us hire the initial team that would take over SecureDrop once he was gone.
James’s encyclopedic knowledge of computer and network security was a key reason why newsrooms were comfortable adopting SecureDrop when it was still seen as something relatively new and unknown.
James left FPF in August of 2015 after he felt the project was in a place where it could survive without him. Ever since, he had been working on the security team at Classy, a crowdfunding site for non-profit organizations located in San Diego.
We don’t know why James took his own life; we do know, however, he long suffered from PTSD from his time serving in the Marines during the Iraq War. It was an experience that affected him in multiple ways. He often cited the Iraq War as his inspiration for wanting to help journalists and whistleblowers; it made him realize governments needed to be much more transparent and accountable.
Memorial services have not yet been finalized, but if you knew James personally, please feel free to reach out to us through our contact form, and we are happy to keep you informed of anything we learn.
Finally, if you suffer from depression or PTSD and are considering harming yourself, please reach out to Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Some of our best and brightest minds have suffered in silence, and sometimes keep loved ones in the dark. Please know that you are not alone.
It is impossible to overstate how fundamentally important James Dolan was to the development of both Freedom of the Press Foundation and SecureDrop. We are heartbroken he is gone, but we are also eternally grateful to have known and worked with him.