As the US and Foreign Desk Editors and their lead researchers pored over the morass of leak data, they quickly appreciated the sheer number of individual document files. There was some structure to them, with related documents grouped together in folders, but the folder names seemed arbitrary, mostly not even recognisable words.

Previous leak events had given the team some experience in trawling through large messy collections of secret files, often gathered in haste, but this was a couple of orders of magnitude bigger, and had in fact been calmly and deliberately curated by the leaker over the course of several months. It seemed strange then that he’d neglected to include a useful index into the hoard.

A query, passed through the chain of connections back to the leaker-in-hiding, yielded a belated response, laden with expletives, mainly along the lines of “I put my life on the line to get this stuff out and you are complaining I didn’t make it easy enough for you? Stick it in a search engine.”

Meanwhile, that is of course what they were doing anyway, in a secure room, to ensure no info leaked from the leak prematurely.

A large, keycard-locked storage room, with no network connectivity but plenty of stacked office furniture, had been re-purposed as Leak Analysis Central. It was carnage out in the nearby office spaces, as they became the hasty dumping ground for piles of chairs and the odd table. Disgruntled staff took it upon themselves to spread the dusty largesse to farther reaches of the office building, whilst ensuring that they first upgraded any of their local chairs that had become a bit tatty.

A Windows desktop machine, which moments before had been sending a scrolling list of live tweets by readers about the newspaper’s online articles to the main office display was commandeered, as was the pair of nice widescreen displays sitting on a nearby desk, only vacated because of an ill-timed toilet break. All was fair in leaks and war.

The Interactive Graphics team (aka “the team which understands computers”) meanwhile was downloading copies of every bit of software they could think might be useful, and that would run on a PC with no internet access. Solr, Perl, Ruby, Python, Excel, Octave, Word, Excel, even Emacs and vi, just in case. It was all shoved onto an external hard drive, and carried into the secured room. Info could go in, but nothing was to come out.

Just under 32 GB of compressed text files, held on a USB stick, expanded into 10x that when unpacked for reading. It took about an hour for the first, naive indexing of the leak data in the search engine, and at last the journos, who by this time were in a state of high agitation, could launch themselves into the files. They considered, briefly, fighting over who had dibs on the one keyboard, but the US editor raised his eyebrows at the Foreign editor and ushered his own researcher into the hot seat. The Foreign editor immediately turned round to the IT networks guy and demanded another PC from which they could access the search index.

Several expectant employees had their day marred by the sudden disappearance of their promised new machines. They’d received the emails announcing they were to be collected that morning, but the IT Helpdesk staff could only shrug and mumble something about an emergency and promise they were top of the list for the next delivery.

More chairs were turfed out into the corridors, as the IT bods set up a network of machines along one wall, power and network cables looped and piled in many of the ways it is possible to contravene health and safety guidelines. A brief panic ensued as it was realised several of the machines had wifi enabled, and then a similar panic over bluetooth. Then smartphones. All of which were disabled, switched off, or removed.

By that afternoon, there were 3 PCs, each with 2 screens, some wide, some not, along one wall, and 4 laptops along the next wall. Flipcharts took up the remaining walls. In the centre of the room, there was just sufficient space for a small table.

Only then, to the annoyance of almost everyone, a voice piped up about Van-like speaking, which had been mentioned in a book called Cryptonomicon and wasn’t that also a worry if they wanted to ensure no information left this room? The network guys had to concede there was such a thing, called Van Eck phreaking and, yes, it was a possible security loophole that someone could read text straight off the screens in this room if they had their equipment up against the walls on the outside. So would it be sufficient to ensure no-one sat next to the walls on the outside? (the order was issued regardless). No, with a sufficiently powerful receiver they could listen in from quite a bit further away. So what can we do then? Well, the only way to be sure is to fit electromagnetic shielding. Ah, like a Faraway Cage?, piped up the voice again. Er, yes, like a Faraday Cage. Is this strictly necessary? No-one was quite sure.

A hasty request went out to the folks in the main office about how to turn the storage room into a Faraday Cage. The answer was swift. Aluminium foil, lots of it, and gaffer tape, and lots of that. An hour later, via taxi, arrived lots of both. What followed was both immensely frustrating and curiously satisfying, as everyone pitched in with lining the walls, ceiling, floor and door, lifting up all the pieces of freshly-arrived furniture in turn. A large cardboard box stayed in the corner of the room containing the materials needed to make the running repairs on the inevitable rips and tears that would degrade the shielding over the next few days.

The sibilant rustling and crinkling of the foil as you walked about, basically instant tinnitus, would become one of the defining memories of everyone who worked in the Leak Analysis room. That and the smell. Although they did punch holes in the foil where it covered the air conditioning vent, they only had half a vent in the first place due to the placement of the movable office walls. Up to 8 people plus machines working for days in a room meant for stacked chairs does tend to build up a certain sharp tang in the air.


Leak Analysis Central
(from Emus All The Way Down)
by Chris Gathercole, RSS
published: 11 February 2014
This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.