Aaron Swartz was not yet a legend when, almost two years ago, I asked him to build an open-source, anonymous inbox. His achievements were real and varied, but the events that would come to define him to the public were still in his future: his federal criminal indictment; his leadership organizing against the censorious Stop Online Piracy Act; his suicide in a Brooklyn apartment. I knew him as a programmer and an activist, a member of a fairly small tribe with the skills to turn ideas into code—another word for action—and the sensibility to understand instantly what I was looking for: a slightly safer way for journalists and their anonymous sources to communicate.
There's a growing technology gap: phone records, e-mail, computer forensics, and outright hacking are valuable weapons for anyone looking to identify a journalist's source. With some exceptions, the press has done little to keep pace: our information-security efforts tend to gravitate toward the parts of our infrastructure that accept credit cards.
Aaron was attuned to this kind of problem. I'd first met him in 2006, when he and two other coders sold the social-news site Reddit to Condé Nast, the parent company of Wired, where I'm an editor, and of The New Yorker. The three of them moved into a converted conference room in the corner of Wired's San Francisco headquarters. Aaron stood out from his colleagues—he was moody, quiet, and blogged about how much he disliked working there.