The legacy of James Dolan, a former Marine who took his own life this week, may seem hard to reconcile, the two realities striking different perceptive chords for many. But those in tune with the tech world and James Dolan’s contributions to providing whistleblowers a secure means to publish sensitive yet publically impactful information, his legacy is clear, and it is. That legacy can be summed up with one word: sacrifice.
When it was reported Tuesday by his former employer, the Freedom of the Press Foundation, that Dolan had taken his own life, they published alongside the news a tribute to the man who had laid the foundation for whistleblowing as we know it today. Upon retiring from the Army after being deployed during the Iraq War, Dolan’s life experiences and expertise in electronic security led him to a partnership with Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz.
Together they, along with intellectual assistance from Wired editor Kevin Poulsen, would create StrongBox, previously referred to as DeadDrop. It was a system that would allow for journalists and whistle-blowing insiders to exchange information securely, a forum immune to the immensely powerful hacking tools of those who would wish to uncover sources and track leakers. It was the first of its kind, and after being first adopted and utilized by The New Yorker magazine, StrongBox – which would come to be known as SecureDrop – would become a regularly-used tool by the Washington Post, New York Times, Associated Press, and most notoriously, WikiLeaks.
Shortly after the code’s finalization in January of 2013, Swartz – who was facing a prison sentence after being indicted for downloading academic journal papers illegally from an MIT wiring closet– was found hanging in his Brooklyn apartment. Five years later, almost to the day (Swartz died on January 11th) Dolan met a similar fate.
As the Freedom of the Press Foundation detailed, Dolan suffered from effects of PTSD, and the strain of being, in essence, one of the founding developers of the equally maligned and celebrated WikiLeaks certainly added even more stress to his psyche. Dolan’s passing is a tragedy, but his legacy persists. His sacrifice, not just in war but in his career in the private sector, was substantial.
“He had a high-paying computer security job at a large company by then, but I asked him if he’d be willing to come work for us so we could try to get SecureDrop into more newsrooms. We had hardly any money at the time, yet he immediately agreed—even though it meant taking an 80% pay cut,” FPF executive director Trevor Timm writes.
Making his passing even more significant is the fact that, after Swartz’s death, Dolan was “literally the only person in the world” who held the knowledge which allowed for SecureDrop’s creation, according to Timm. It is a code that has changed the way many see the world, and it is a code that took bravery and brilliance to develop. And it was, at the end of the day, a code that typified what James Dolan was all about.