GlobaLeaks and SecureDrop: which is right for you?

GlobaLeaks and SecureDrop are both secure and anonymous document submission systems. However, there are important differences between the two that must be understood before choosing either.

TL;DR

Use SecureDrop to best defend legally privileged work, or when utmost security is needed.

Use GlobaLeaks if:

  • You or your organization needs an internal auditing and/or whistleblowing platform, a survey/questionnaire platform, or a file submission platform.
  • You or your organization does not have dedicated technical support to properly manage SecureDrop.
  • You or your organization wants to trial-run a secure and anonymous document submission system to understand the policy and procedural impacts before investing in SecureDrop.
  • You or your organization cannot monetarily afford the SecureDrop infrastructure.

Similarities

  • Both systems are free software.
  • Both are regularly audited by independent software security firms, and the audit results are published.
  • Both use the Tor network to support user anonymity.
  • Both require consistent administration and updates to maintain software security.
  • Both require careful thought about the system’s physical security.
  • Both require careful thought about organizational policy changes and the organizational procedural changes.

Differences

There are many important consequences of their usability decisions. Always perform a careful threat assessment before deploying, and periodically after deployment.

GlobaLeaks

Docs: https://github.com/globaleaks/globaleaks/wiki

GlobaLeaks aims for ease-of-use for both the administrator and users. GlobaLeaks only requires one small Ubuntu 14.04 x86-64 system with root or sudo privileges for installation and system updates. Anyone with basic Linux systems administration can install GlobaLeaks onto, for example, a $200 laptop. Freedom of the Press foundation recommends the Intel NUC for SecureDrop, and that is a good system choice for GlobaLeaks, too.

The administrator needs to be able to install GlobaLeaks onto an Ubuntu system, either Virtual Machine (VM) or computer. After Ubuntu is installed, the GlobaLeaks install script is super simple. Once the install script has completed, the end of the install script will report the Onion site for submissions and administraiton.

GlobaLeaks is incredibly flexible. An administrator could choose to install their GlobaLeaks instance in “the cloud” (someone else’s computer). But there are many security and legal consequences if you have someone else manage the service. The security consequences include the risks associated with hosting sensitive material in a virtual machine that is shared with an unknown amount of unknown people or organizations. Shared virtual hosting environments are notorius, especially if you are trying to keep the location of your Onion service hidden. Additionally, if your work is threatening to any adversary, getting services shutdown or losing access to materials is a higher risk if a 3rd party manages it.

My first encounter with GlobaLeaks was in 2012 when I met one of the core developers at a Tor hackathon. I was so inspired by the project that I wrote the first GlobaLeaks Wikipedia article to help bring attention to the project. Since I’m not a developer, information activism is one of the best things that I can do to support free software and the amazing people that choose to work on free software.

I’ve deployed GlobaLeaks for several small projects. One of the projects needed a secure and anonymous document submission system (non- privileged, professional work), and another needed a secure and anonymous questionnaire to support a privacy-technology workshop.

SecureDrop

Docs: https://securedrop.readthedocs.org/en/latest/

SecureDrop aims to be as secure as possible for both the administrator and users. Administration requires intermediate Linux systems administration expertise. Once SecureDrop has been deployed, administration can only be performed locally and is command line only. Further, it is ideal for there to be an administration team, but not everyone needs to have technical skills. It is very important to understand the different systems needed and the roles they play.

SecureDrop requires, at a minimum, four independent but low-power x86-64 computer systems. The four computer systems are necessary to properly compartmentalize specific SecureDrop properties for ideal security via defense-in-depth.

One of these computer systems is connected to the Internet, the SecureDrop web server. Contrary to the default option in GlobaLeaks, the SecureDrop web server is only accessible via Onion services. A second computer system connects to the web server for the sole purpose of event reporting. This is necessary so that if the web server experiences any issues, a dedicated, compartmentalized system will be alerted of trouble. The other two computer systems needed for SecureDrop should never be networked and are called “air-gapped”. One of the air-gapped computer systems is needed to perform administrative functions; namely, the creation of Tails Linux USB drives. The second air-gapped computer system is solely used for reviewing SecureDrop submissions. Both of the air-gapped computer systems run Tails linux.

My first and only SecureDrop deployment was for the ACLU of Washington, which is really incredible. ACLU-WA was many firsts:

– The first non- journalist organization in the world.
– The first ACLU organization.
– The first legal organization.
– The first organization in the Pacific Northwest.

At ACLU-WA, there was a desire to begin experimenting with secure submission systems as an alternative to existing, common forms of communication like e-mail and HTTPS forms that come with inherent vulnerabilities. This decision was made without a fully developed sense of what the myriad internal policy implications would be. We knew ahead of deployment that a system like SecureDrop would pose certain organizational policy and procedural consequences, but waited until after receiving our first submission to finalize all our administrative practices. Most importantly, we know that existing legal intake methods used by legal organizations pose concrete risks because they all depend on communication systems that are not designed to withstand certain passive surveillance systems.

I was not part of ACLU-WA staff or part of the technical team that installed SecureDrop. My voluntary role at ACLU-WA was to design the landing page, to create our advanced threat modeling page, to advise on website and SecureDrop hardening, and to advise on organizational policy changes.

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