Cryptome is a 501(c)(3) private foundation created in 1996 by John Young and Deborah Natsios and sponsored by Natsios-Young Architects. The site collects information about freedom of expression, privacy, cryptography, dual-use technologies, national security, intelligence, government secrecy. lists of people allegedly associated with the Stasi, and the PSIA. and the disputed internal emails of the Wikileaks organization. Cryptome republished the already public surveillance disclosures of Edward Snowden and announced in June 2014 that they would publish all unreleased Snowden documents later that month.
Cryptome has received praise from notable organizations such as the EFF, but has also been the subject of criticism and controversy. Cryptome was accused by WikiLeaks of forging emails and some of Cryptome's posted documents have been called an "invitation to terrorists." The website has also been criticized for posting maps and pictures of "dangerous Achilles' heel[s] in the domestic infrastructure," which the New York Times called a "tip off [to] terrorists." ABC News also criticized Cryptome for posting information that terrorists could use to plan attacks. Cryptome continues to post controversial materials including guides on "how to attack critical infrastructure" in addition to other instructions for illegal hacking "for those without the patience to wait for whistleblowers". Cryptome has also received criticism for its handling of private and embarrassing information.
Cryptome was created by John Young and Deborah Natsios, both highly successful architects. Over the four decades of their architectural practice, they have handled multibillion-dollar projects ranging from urban design to forensic services. They have worked as architects, contractors or independent consultants for people and organizations. As a result of their architectural work, they have been invited to speak at prestigious functions like FedCyber, an annual cybersecurity event on critical enterprise and federal government challenges.
John Young was born in 1935. He grew up in West Texas where his father worked on a decommissioned Texas POW, and John later served in the United States Army Corps of Engineers in Germany (1953–56) and earned degrees in philosophy and architecture from Rice University (1957–63). He went on to receive his graduate degree in architecture from Columbia University in 1969. A self-identified radical, he became an activist and helped create community service group Urban Deadline, where his fellow student-activists initially suspected him of being a police spy. Urban Deadline went on to receive citations from the Citizens Union of the City of New York and the New York City Council, and which later evolved into Cryptome. His work earned him a position on the nominating committee for the Chrysler Award for Innovation in Design in 1998.
He has received citations from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Legal Aid Society. In 1993, he was awarded the Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition. He has stated he doesn't "acknowledge the power of the law"
Deborah Natsios grew up in CIA safe houses across Europe, Asia and South America reserved for covert CIA station chiefs. She is the principal of Natsios Young Architects.
In addition to being co-editor for Cryptome, she is responsible for the associated project Cartome, which was founded in 2011 and posts her original critical art and graphical images and other public resources to document sensitive areas. She additionally holds a degree in mathematics from Smith College. She has given talks at the USENIX Annual Technical Conference and Architectures of Fear: Terrorism and the Future of Urbanism in the West, She is a notable critic of Edward Snowden.
Deborah Natsios is the daughter of Nicholas Natsios, who served as CIA station chief in Greece from 1948–1956, in Vietnam from 1956–1960, in France from 1960–1962, in South Korea from 1962–1965, in Argentina from 1965–1969, in the Netherlands from 1969–1972, and in Iran from 1972–1974. While stationed in Vietnam, his deputy was William Colby, the future Director of Central Intelligence. His name was included in the 1996 membership directory of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers, which Cryptome helped to publish. Cryptome acknowledged its link to Nicholas Natsios in 2000. On October 21, 2015, the website announced that about 350,000 Wikileaks documents totaling 70 gigabytes were made available on a separate USB. The combined archives contain 444,000 files totaling 62 gigabytes. Cryptome says the archives were free to public libraries. As of November 28, 2015 Cryptome disavowed versions of its archive not hosted on the website.
Cryptome's digital library includes series on:
- Cartome: An archive of news and spatial / geographic documents on privacy, cryptography, dual-use technologies, national security and intelligence—communicated by imagery systems: cartography, photography, photogrammetry, steganography, camouflage, maps, images, drawings, charts, diagrams, IMINT and their reverse-panopticon and counter-deception potential.
- Cryptome CN: Information, documents and opinions banned by the People's Republic of China.
- Nuclear Power Plants and WMD Series.
- Protest Photos Series.
According to the website's mission statement, "Cryptome welcomes documents for publication that are prohibited by governments worldwide, in particular material on freedom of expression, privacy, cryptology, dual-use technologies, national security, intelligence, and secret governance -- open, secret and classified documents -- but not limited to those." In another interview, John Young promoted skepticism about all sources of information, saying: “Facts are not a trustworthy source of knowledge. Cryptome is not an authoritative source.” When asked about providing context for material, Young said, "We do not believe in 'context.' That is authoritarian nonsense. For the same reason, we do not believe in verification, authentication, background."
The front page of the states that "documents are removed from this site only by order served directly by a US court having jurisdiction. No court order has ever been served; any order served will be published here – or elsewhere if gagged by order." However, documents have been removed at the request of both law enforcement as well as individuals.
In 2015, it was discovered that Cryptome's USB archives contained web server logs, containing clues to the identities of Cryptome visitors including their IP addresses and what files they had accessed on Cryptome. Cryptome initially stated that they had been faked as part of a disinformation campaign. Several days later, Cryptome confirmed the logs were real and shared their findings. The logs had been mailed out to users who ordered the site's archive since they changed web hosts in 2007, which Cryptome blamed on their current ISP, Network Solutions. Cryptome later added that "there are no accidental leaks", and that the leak succeeded in its intention of creating scandalous publicity to increase visitors to the website. Soon after, Cryptome posted pictures of their logs, showing that they had records spanning the sites' history. According to Cryptome, the then nineteen years of logs added up to about one terabyte.
Cryptome has warned users that they do not have technical measures to protect the anonymity of their sources, saying "don’t send us stuff and think that we’ll protect you."
Cryptome's trade mark application described its business as "computer services, namely, on-line scanning, detecting, quarantining and eliminating of viruses, worms, trojans, spyware, adware, malware and unauthorized data and programs on computers and electronic devices." Another trade mark application by Cryptome described it as providing "electronic storage of electronic media, namely, images, text and audio data" with a focus on "[s]cientific and technological services and research and design relating thereto; industrial analysis and research services; design and development of computer hardware and software; legal services."
According to emails sent and published by Cryptome, the website has a three step plan for combining social issues with architectural and security issues. Step one is the prevention of the removal of social programs like the Bowery Mission and "to valorize them as far more valuable than the best of the best art institutions." Step two related to Cryptome's Eyeball Series which uses photographs and video recordings to document "national security sensitive infrastructure which handles global and financial communications", and the mass transit system which John Young and Deborah Natsios worked as architectural consultants when they "learned of its appalling insecurity -- which has also been superficially reported, honest coverage denied for alleged security concerns, aka security by obscurity." Cryptome has not publicly discussed step three.
Cryptome has stated that it operates at least a dozen domains and claims to initiate new disclosure methods every few months.
1968: Urban Deadline was created as an extension of the Columbia strike and the Avery Hall occupation. Three decades later, Cryptome evolves out of Urban Deadline.
1993: John and Deborah met and their collaboration begins "some time late in 1993".
1999: In May, Cryptome posted a list of alleged MI6 officers found on a mailing list. In response, MI6 allegedly tried to have Cryptome booted off its ISP. In October journalist Declan McCullagh wrote about John Young's perusal of the site's access logs.
2002: In January, Cryptome applied for press credentials with New York City. They were denied because they "could not provide letters of reference" regarding their previous press activities. In December the Attorney General issued a subpoena requiring that John Young appear before a grand jury and turn over "all logs recording the I.P. addresses and/or users" who visited Cryptome. John Young posted a notice online declaring that visitor logs are deleted daily.
2003: In November, Cryptome was visited by two FBI agents from a counter-terrorism office, asking for any information which Cryptome "had a gut feeling" could be a threat to the nation and the purpose of site. Cryptome informed users that they have been able to delete logs for jya.com (Cryptome's predecessor website) and Cryptome.org
2006: Cryptome became one of the early organizers of Wikileaks. John Young revealed that he was approached by Julian Assange and asked to be the public face of Wikileaks; Young agreed and his name was listed on the website's original domain registration form.
2007: In the early part of the year, John Young and Deborah Natsios left Wikileaks due to concerns about the organizations' finances and fundraising, accusing it of being a "money-making operation" and "business intelligence" scheme, and expressing concern that the amount of money they sought "could not be needed so soon except for suspect purposes." Cryptome alleged that the shutdown is a censorship attempt in response to posts about the Coast Guard's Deepwater program.
2011: In July, Cryptome named the alleged CIA analyst who found Osama Bin Laden. In September, Cryptome published a list of Intelligence and National Security Alliance members, alleging that they were spies. Cryptome stopped cooperating with the production team for We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks upon learning it was tentatively titled "Unnamed Wikileaks Project," explaining that "the project appears to have retreated into a narrow-focussed commercial theme, perhaps unavoidable in buzzy-headline Media World." In August, internet hacktivist The Jester accused Cryptome of running the website Cryptocomb and exposing Mark Owen. Cryptome denied any connection to Cryptocomb or exposing Mark Owen's identity.
2013: In February, Cryptome's website, email and Twitter account were compromised, exposing whistleblowers and sources that had corresponded with Cryptome via email. Cryptome blamed hackers Ruxpin and Sabu, who was an FBI informant at the time. In June two US Secret Service agents visited Cryptome to request removal of a former presidential Bush family email allegedly hacked by Guccifer. (According to Network Solutions's website, logs are deleted after thirty days and Cryptome could choose to prevent the logging.) In December Cryptome reported receiving a letter attempting to blackmail them. The letter demanded money in exchange for the Guccifer archive and claimed to have embarrassing information about Cryptome and Cryptome's email exchanges.
2014: In January, Cryptome uploaded a copy of the Guccifer archive to Google Drive, posting the links on Pastebin and their website. In June, Cryptome was pulled offline again when malware was found infecting visitors to the site. In July, Cryptome said it would publish the remaining NSA documents taken by Edward Snowden in the "coming weeks". Since then, Cryptome has not published any new Snowden documents.
2015: In September, Cryptome announced that their encryption keys are compromised, then later claimed they are not. A few days later, Cryptome filed for incorporation in New York. Later that month, a GCHQ document leaked by Edward Snowden revealed that the agency is monitoring visits to Cryptome. Cryptome confirmed the information in the slide, stating that logs showed the IP address "visited Cryptome on dates listed for files shown." In October, a sold edition (USB stick) of the Cryptome archive was observed to contain web server logs, containing clues to the identities of Cryptome visitors. The logs had been mailed out to users who ordered the site's archive at least since 2007. Cryptome denied the logs were real, and accused the discoverer of forging the data and other forms of corruption. Cryptome later confirmed they were real. Cryptome later added the comment that "there are no accidental leaks". Later in October, Wikileaks launched a searchable version of the Cryptome archive and Cryptome's tweets. In response, Cryptome criticized Wikileaks and called it "click bait to garner user data." In November, Cryptome announced it was constructing a SecureDrop system. On November 28, 2015 Cryptome disavowed all copies of its archive, including its USB archives. The security team of Cryptome's web host reviewed the files and found they were "malicious with intent for fraud" and ordered their removal from the server. In July, Cryptome alleged LinkNYC was "tracking Cryptome's movements through the city" after the company responded to Cryptome's social media posts by attempting to prevent them from photographing the company's installations. Later that month, Cryptome was reportedly threatened with arrest by the US Secret Service after sneaking through security at the home of Presidential Candidate Donald Trump. In October, Cryptome announced that its Bitcoin account had been "hacked and drained." When asked about the transfers in the ledger for their Bitcoin wallet, Cryptome declared that all the transfers were there, but that "everything has been erased on our account." Later that month, Cryptome advised people not to visit the website and posted what it said was a forged Podesta email from WikiLeaks. In November, Cryptome announced that it was no longer using PGP encryption.
2017: In May, Twitter suspended Cryptome's account. Cryptome activated a secondary backup account in response.
Wikileaks accused Cryptome of executing a "smear campaign" in 2010 after Cryptome posted what it alleged were email exchanges with Wikileaks insiders, which Wikileaks disputed.
Cryptome was awarded the Defensor Libertatis (defender of liberty) award at the 2010 Big Brother Awards, for a "life in the fight against surveillance and censorship" and for providing "suppressed or otherwise censored documents to the global public". The awards committee noted that Cryptome had engaged with "every protagonist of the military-electronic monitoring complex".
In 2012, Steven Aftergood, the director of the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy, described John Young and Cryptome as "fearless and contemptuous of any pretensions to authority” and “oblivious to the security concerns that are the preconditions of a working democracy. And he seems indifferent to the human costs of involuntary disclosure of personal information.” Aftergood specifically criticized Cryptome's handling of the McGurk emails, saying "it’s fine to oppose McGurk or anyone else. It wasn’t necessary to humiliate them".
Peter Earnest, a 36-year veteran of the CIA turned executive director of the International Spy Museum and chairman of the board of directors of the Association for Intelligence Officers criticized Cryptome for publishing the names of spies, saying it does considerable damage and aids people that would do them harm.