Hacks, Leaks, and Revelations

~12 min read


Unlike any other point in history, hackers, whistleblowers, and archivists now routinely make off with terabytes of data from governments, corporations, and extremist groups. These datasets often contain gold mines of revelations in the public interest, and in many cases are freely available for anyone to download. Yet these digital tomes can prove extremely difficult to analyze or interpret, and few people today have the skills to do so.

I wrote this book for journalists, researchers, hacktivists, and anyone else who wants to learn the technologies and coding skills required to investigate these troves of hacked or leaked data. I don’t assume any prior knowledge. Along with lessons on programming and technical tools, I’ve incorporated many anecdotes and firsthand tips from the trenches of investigative journalism. In a series of hands-on projects, you’ll work with real datasets, including those from police departments, fascist groups, militias, a Russian ransomware gang, and social networks. Throughout, you’ll engage head-on with the dumpster fire that is 21st-century current events: the rise of neofascism and the rejection of objective reality, the extreme partisan divide, and an internet overflowing with misinformation.

By the end of the book, you’ll have gained the skills to download and analyze your own datasets, extracting the revelations they contain and transforming previously unintelligible information into your own groundbreaking reports.

Why I Wrote This Book

I’ve worked as an investigative journalist for The Intercept since 2013, reporting on a large variety of leaked datasets. The first dataset I cut my teeth on was the Snowden Archive: a collection of top-secret documents from National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden revealing that the NSA spies on pretty much everyone in the world who uses a phone or the internet. I wrote a dozen articles and helped publish over 2,000 secret documents from that dataset, helping bring the issues of privacy and government surveillance to the forefront of public consciousness and leading to the widespread adoption of privacy-protecting technologies.

Huge data leaks like these used to be rare, but today they’re increasingly common. In my work at The Intercept, I encounter datasets so frequently I feel like I’m drowning in data, and I simply ignore most of them because it’s impossible for me to investigate them all. Unfortunately, this often means that no one will report on them, and their secrets will remain hidden forever. I hope this book helps to change that.

Revelations based on leaked datasets can change the course of history. In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg’s leak of military documents known as the Pentagon Papers led to the end of the Vietnam War. The same year, an underground activist group called the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into a Federal Bureau of Investigation field office, stole secret documents, and leaked them to the media. This dataset mentioned COINTELPRO. NBC reporter Carl Stern used Freedom of Information Act requests to publicly reveal that COINTELPRO was a secret FBI operation devoted to surveilling, infiltrating, and discrediting left-wing political groups. This stolen FBI dataset also led to the creation of the Church Committee, a Senate committee that investigated these abuses and reined them in. More recently, Chelsea Manning’s 2010 leaks of Iraq and Afghanistan documents helped spark the Arab Spring, and documents and emails stolen by Russian military hackers helped elect Donald Trump as US president in 2016.

As you make your way through this book, you’ll download a variety of real hacked and leaked datasets for yourself, learning how they’re structured and how to extract their secrets—and perhaps, someday, you’ll change history yourself. You’ll read stories from many more datasets as well, some of which are private and not available for the public to download.

What You’ll Learn

This book is split into five parts, with each building on the previous part. You’ll begin with security and privacy considerations, including how to verify that datasets are authentic and how to safely communicate with sources. You’ll then work with datasets in your computer’s terminal and on remote servers in the cloud and learn how to make various kinds of datasets searchable, including how to scour email dumps for information. You’ll get a crash course in Python programming, with a focus on writing code to automate investigative tasks. These coding skills will allow you to analyze datasets that contain millions of files, which is impossible to do manually. Finally, I’ll discuss two exciting real-world case studies from some of my own investigations.

The following outline describes each chapter in greater detail.

Part I: Sources and Datasets

Part I discusses issues you should resolve before you start analyzing datasets: how to protect your sources, how to keep your datasets and your research secure, and how to acquire datasets safely.

In Chapter 1, you’ll learn about how to protect your sources from retaliation. This includes how to safely communicate with sources, how to store sensitive datasets, and how to decide what information to redact. It also covers the critical step of how to authenticate datasets, using the example of chat logs from WikiLeaks and patient records from a far-right anti-vaccine group. You’ll learn how to secure your own digital life and, by extension, how to secure the data-driven investigations you’re working on. This includes using a password manager, encrypting hard disks and USB disks, sanitizing potentially malicious documents using the Dangerzone application, and more.

In Chapter 2, you’ll learn how to acquire copies of hacked and leaked datasets. I’ll introduce Distributed Denial of Secrets (DDoSecrets), a transparency collective I’m involved with that hosts copies of all of the datasets you’ll work with in this book, and you’ll learn how to download datasets from DDoSecrets using BitTorrent. I’ll explain several ways to acquire datasets directly from sources and introduce security and anonymity tools like Signal, Tor Browser, OnionShare, and SecureDrop. As an example, I’ll explain how I communicated with a source who leaked data from the conservative activist group Tea Party Patriots.

You’ll also download a copy of the BlueLeaks dataset, one of the primary datasets you’ll work with in this book. BlueLeaks is a collection of 270GB of data hacked from hundreds of US law enforcement websites in the summer of 2020, in the midst of the Black Lives Matter uprising. As you’ll see, it’s full of evidence of police misconduct. BlueLeaks has been widely covered in the press, but most of it hasn’t been reported on yet. By the end of this book, you’ll have the tools you need to conduct your own BlueLeaks investigations.

Part II: Tools of the Trade

In Part II, you’ll practice using the command line interface (CLI) to quickly assess leaked datasets and to use tools that don’t have graphical interfaces, developing skills you’ll apply extensively throughout the rest of the book.

In Chapter 3, you’ll learn the basics of controlling your computer through CLI commands, as well as various tips and tricks for quickly measuring and searching datasets like BlueLeaks from the command line. You’ll also write your first shell script, a file containing a series of CLI commands.

In Chapter 4, you’ll expand your basic command line skills, learning new commands and setting up a server in the cloud to remotely analyze hacked and leaked datasets. As an example, you’ll work with the Oath Keepers dataset, which contains emails from the far-right militia that participated in a seditious conspiracy to keep Trump in power after he lost the 2020 election.

In Chapter 5 you’ll learn to use Docker, a technology that lets you run a variety of complex software crucial for analyzing datasets. You’ll then use Docker to run Aleph, software that can analyze large datasets, find connections for you, and search the data for keywords.

Chapter 6 focuses on tools and techniques for investigating email dumps. You’ll read emails from the Nauru Police Force about Australia’s offshore detention centers, including many messages about refugees seeking Australian asylum, and from the president of Nauru himself. You’ll also investigate emails from a conservative think tank called the Heritage Foundation, which include homophobic arguments against gay marriage. Using the skills you learn, you’ll be able to research any email dumps you acquire in the future.

Part III: Python Programming

In Part III, you’ll get a crash course in writing code in the Python programming language, focusing on the skills required to analyze the hacked and leaked datasets covered in future chapters.

Chapter 7 introduces you to basic programming concepts: you’ll learn to write and execute Python scripts and commands in the interactive Python interpreter, doing math, defining variables, working with strings and Boolean logic, looping through lists of items, and using functions.

Chapter 8 builds on the Python fundamentals covered previously. You’ll learn to traverse filesystems and work with dictionaries and lists. Finally, you’ll put theory into practice by writing several Python scripts to help you investigate BlueLeaks and explore leaked chat logs from the Russian ransomware gang Conti.

Part IV: Structured Data

In Part IV, you’ll learn to work with some of the most common file formats in hacked and leaked datasets.

In Chapter 9, you’ll learn the structure of the CSV (comma-separated value) file format, viewing CSV files in both graphical spreadsheet software and text editors. You’ll then write Python scripts to loop through the rows of a CSV file and to save CSV files of your own, allowing you to further investigate the CSV spreadsheets in the BlueLeaks dataset.

Chapter 10 introduces a custom application called BlueLeaks Explorer that I developed and released along with this book, outlining how I built the app and showing you how to use it. You can use this app to investigate the many parts of BlueLeaks that haven’t yet been analyzed, hunting for new revelations about police intelligence agencies across the United States. If you ever need to develop an app to investigate a specific dataset, you can also use this chapter as inspiration.

Chapter 11 focuses on the JSON file format and the Parler dataset of over a million videos uploaded to the far-right social networking site Parler, including thousands of videos of the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol. This dataset includes metadata for each video in JSON format, including information like when the video was filmed and in what location. Some of these videos were used as evidence during Donald Trump’s second impeachment inquiry. You’ll write Python scripts to filter through these videos and plot the GPS coordinates of Parler videos on a map, so you can work with similar location data in future investigations.

In Chapter 12, you’ll learn to extract revelations from SQL databases by working with the Epik dataset. Epik is a Christian nationalist company that provides domain name and web hosting services to the far right, including sites known for hosting the manifestos of mass shooters. The Epik dataset contains huge databases full of hacked customer data, along with the true ownership information for domain names for extremist websites—information that’s supposed to be hidden behind a domain name privacy service. You’ll use your new skills to discover domain names owned by one of the people behind QAnon and the far-right image board 8kun. If you’re interested in extremism research, the Epik dataset might be useful for future investigations.

Part V: Case Studies

Part V covers two in-depth case studies from my own career, describing how I conducted major investigations using the skills you’ve learned so far. In both, I explain my investigative process: how I obtained my datasets, how I analyzed them using techniques described in this book, what Python code I wrote to aid this analysis, what revelations I discovered, and what social impact my journalism had.

In Chapter 13, I discuss my investigation into America’s Frontline Doctors (AFLDS), a right-wing anti-vaccine group founded during the COVID-19 pandemic to oppose public health measures. I’ll explain how I turned a collection of hacked CSV and JSON files into a major news report, revealing that a network of shady telehealth companies swindled tens of millions of dollars out of vaccine skeptics. My report led to a congressional investigation of AFLDS.

In Chapter 14 I describe how I analyzed and reported on massive datasets of leaked neo-Nazi chat logs. I also discuss my role in developing a public investigation tool for such datasets, called DiscordLeaks. This tool aided in a successful lawsuit against the organizers of the deadly Unite the Right rally in 2017, resulting in a settlement of over \$25 million in damages against the leaders of the American fascist movement.


Appendix A includes tips for Windows users completing the exercises in this book to help your code run more smoothly. Appendix B teaches you web scraping, or how to write code that accesses websites for you so that you can automate your investigative work or build your own datasets from public websites.

What You’ll Need

This book is an interactive tutorial: every chapter other than the case studies in Part V includes exercises. Many later exercises require you to have completed earlier ones, so I recommend reading this book sequentially. For example, in Chapter 1, you’ll encrypt a USB disk to which you’ll download a copy of the BlueLeaks dataset in Chapter 2.

Read this book with your computer open next to you, completing the exercises and trying out technologies and software as you learn about them. The source code for every exercise, as well as the code used in case studies and appendixes, is available in an online repository organized by chapter at https://github.com/micahflee/hacks-leaks-and-revelations.

To make this book as accessible as possible, I’ve tried to keep the requirements simple and affordable. You will need the following:

Now grab your laptop, your USB hard disk, and perhaps a coffee or tea, and get ready to start hunting for revelations.

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Information Wants to be Free

Everyone should have access to the information in this book. To remove barriers to access, I've made Hacks, Leaks, and Revelations available for free online under a Creative Commons license. If you can afford it, show your support and buy a copy today!