privacyppratt.com My stories and experiences of religion, privacy, and transparency.

An Insider's View of MormonLeaks: In the Beginning

I’ve already written a bit about how Ryan McKnight and myself came in contact, and how MormonLeaks, as it is known today, came to be. In this post, I hope to provide a little more context.

I knew in order to get credibility, MormonLeaks was going to have to set up their submission process correctly in a way they could guarantee the anonymity of their sources. I felt confident in my ability to do this, so I reached out to McKnight via Reddit with this message:

*Note: I have not edited any of the original typos in any of the messages in this post.

Dear FearlessFixxer,

I know this will be the first time you see my handle. I just recently made it in order to conceal my identity. I am going to great lengths to protect my privacy and maintain anonymity not because I'm scared, but because I still not sure I want my true name associated with the project I am about to propose. I realize you may think this is a bit overkill and that I may be paranoid and crazy. I may be paranoid, but I am not crazy. You may have seen the handle I regularly use in the sub. I don't post frequently, but I have had a few posts that were upvoted quite a bit.

I realy admire the work you guys do here, especially the recent video leaks. However I believe that these may only be milk compared to some potential meatier leaks out there. I believe that there may be something that we can do together to empower leakers to come forward (especially those who work inside TSCC) with confidence that their anonymity will be protected and maintained. If we can accomplish this and embolden more from the community that really have dirt on the church, I think we can accomplish a great good.

I will say that I am not a current church employee. If you would like to hear more about my ideas please respond and we can establish a more secure way of communicating whether it be PGP, OTR, Telegram, or some other encrypted means. How would you rate your technical abilities? All three solutions that I just mentioned are easy to use once you do it once.

If you would like further verification that I am legitimate, I can provide it to you easily. Again, I know this may seem like overkill, but I still haven't made up my mind if I would like to be associated with my idea publicly.

If you do respond, expect a delayed response from me as I will not be able to respond until later due to the privacy measures I have taken. I can explain later.

Securely yours, 3P

In reading through this message again, I honestly don’t know what I was referring to when I said “If you would like further verification that I am legitimate, I can provide it to you easily.” I eventually did do this upon his request, but I was extremely hesitant. One day, I may feel comfortable going into detail about how I did this, but not today.

I chose the name Privacy P. Pratt after Parley P. Pratt, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the days of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. The man signed his letters with the signature of “3P”, which I obviously mimicked.

I figured McKnight had already been contacted by several other people like me, and honestly I’m not sure how I would have felt had he chosen to work with one of them rather than me. Hindsight is 20/20, but I imagine I would be fairly, but privately, upset yet glad he had other viable options. You can bet your ass I would have followed the project closely and scrutinized over their operations though.

McKnight was confused and thought I was someone with a leak. I’m not sure if something I said made him think that or if he just didn’t read my message carefully. I think it is likely the latter as the hype from the videos he had recently released was still at its peak. Here is his response:

ok. please monitor this reddit account for a pm from me later tonight about the secure connection. It may come very late as I am extremely busy today. I will patiently wait your response to that message based on your privacy concerns.

also, when we connect outside of reddit, feel free to prove what you can, but I do not want to know who you are.

If you have something truly newsworthy I have the cell number of the key players at NYT and SLTrib

Cheers

Very cordial. I responded with this:

Perfect. Just to be clear, I have nothing to leak myself, only looking to collaborate on a project to make it easier for those that do have newsworthy info to leak it. It could be that others are already working on something like this. I just want to offer my expertise.

He must have not responded for a day or two because I then sent him another message:

Just seeing if there is still interest. I know that you are busy and that's fine. Again, I think we can easily facilitate leakers to come forward with more confidence and ease.

3P

To which he said:

When you said project in your first message, I thought you meant that you had something to leak.

Now I see that you want to help people facilitate.

There is nothing wrong with that, I hope you are able to help someone if you are approached.

Surely you can understand how I cannot work on the facilitation end of things with an anonymous person.

Cheers.

I found this to be a completely reasonable response. I mean, you are approached by a guy you have never heard of before using an obviously fake name offering help to facilitate the release of confidential documents.

I remember getting somewhat cold feet to the response. I saw that he had posted an interview he did on the Mormon Transitions podcast. I figured I would give it a listen to get a better idea if his motives really matched mine. I listened to it that same morning on my way to work and sent him this message later that night.

Yes, I can understand your reservations. However, I don't think it would be as difficult as you think. That being said, after reading and listening to several interviews from you, I have concluded that you are the type of person that I can likely trust in this situation and would be willing to reveal my identity to you. This would be done under an understanding that you would not reveal me to others unless I agree to it. I'm very sorry for the secrecy, but when we can communicate over a secure connection, I can tell you more and you will understand.

In your interview on Mormon Transitions, you said that you weren't a "hacker". I am. You said that you don't know much about computers. I do. The way the leakers have recently approached you is dangerous. They are leaving behind dozens of virtual fingerprints that can be traced directly to them. And while it may not be inherently illegal, if what is being leaked is considered intellectual property by the church and they get someone in the government on their side, then yes the leaker can get in very big legal trouble.

I have already said more than what I'm comfortable revealing about myself over Reddit. If you are interested in protecting your sources taking very easy to steps to cover their tracks in the "cyber" contact me via Telegram (telegram.org), a secure, private messaging platform. You can download it onto your phone and I will get the message on mine. Don't worry, I won't be able to see your number and you won't be able to see mine.

I hope to hear from you.

Securely yours, 3P

For clarification, when I said I am a “hacker” I meant it in the traditional sense of exploring technologies and getting them to work for my benefit and not in the more modern sense of someone who breaches secured networks, which is illegal if done without permission. Yes, I have hacked secured networks, but never outside of a lab or professional setting without permission. To many, my claim of if “they get someone in the government on their side, then yes the leaker can get in very big legal trouble” may seem outlandish, and perhaps it is, but it is most definitely not outside the realm of possibility. My use of the word “cyber” was in reference to then candidate Donald Trump’s obvious misunderstanding and apparent vageness of the word.

As I indicated in the last paragraph, I was saying more than I wanted to on Reddit. I wanted to speak in a more secure and encrypted channel before revealing more information. At this point, I still wasn’t sure if I ever wanted to reveal my indentity to the public, or even if I would remain with the project in the long term. So I ended the conversation on Reddit and asked him to move it to Telegram. I figured if he was interested, he would message me there and if not, he wouldn’t.

I received a message from McKnight via Telegram that same day and I admitedly was very excited. Unfortunately I do not have the transcript of our conversation there as we have since deleted it, but he immediately made it clear that he had been contacted by others like me and had not made a decision with whom to work with but that he was interested in hearing my proposal. I outline this part of the story in my previous post, but my intention was to build the solution myself. I’m still confident that I would have been able to do so, but then I was told about SecureDrop, but that’s a story for another post. In my next post, I will go into depth about how the rest of our initial team came together.

The Act I am Most Proud of from MormonLeaks

Last week, Mike Norton, also known as NewNameNoah, released a video of 12 year old Savannah speaking in front of her Mormon congregation claiming that God loves her even though she is a lesbian and that he “did not mess up” by making her that way. After expressing these beautiful sentiments, the microphone was turned off and she was asked to sit down by the leaders of the congregation sitting behind her. This powerful video was getting a lot of attention and was even highlighted on CNN. But shortly after its near viral fame, it was taken down from YouTube. Not a whole lot is known at this time as to why it was taken down. We at MormonLeaks suspected this was going to happen and we were ready days in advance. We contacted Mike to tell him that we would host it on our server in Switzerland with a hosting provider that completely ignores all take down requests. As soon as it was taken down, Mike contacted us and we were able to get the video on our server within a matter of minutes. I don’t know when people will learn that the Streisand Effect is real.

I have heard a lot of criticism in regards to how Savannah approached the situation. There has been speculation about whether her parents put her up to it or if she decided to do it herself. Some have criticized her for leveraging the Mormon Fast and Testimony meeting to take a stand. And of course, some have said she is confused. But 100% of that criticism completely misses the point. Savannah’s action were brave and much needed in the political, cultural, and civil environment that we live in today. In Utah, Savannah’s home State, suicide is the number one killer of teens. Many of those killing themselves are from the LGBT community. Data shows that the more Mormons there are in a State, chances are that the youth suicide rate correlates with that percentage. But suicide is not the only delimma facing LGBT youth in the country, 20% - 40% of homeless youth around the country identify as LGBT. In Utah, that number is at least 50%. While I will always be one of the first to point out that correlation is not causation, in this situation, the evidence in pretty damning when during the year immediately following the infamous November policy banning children of gay parents from being baptized until age 18, 32 Mormon LGBT youth committed suicide.

This is an incredible cultural and civil issue. What Savannah did is on the same plane as Rosa Parks and other Civil Rights Movement Era heroes. It deserves to be seen by the world. This needs to stop. A message is being sent to these children that they are not enough, that something is wrong with them, when they are truly beautiful. I do not know who got the video removed, but they do not understand the enormous problem. Not only was the effort completely in vain thank you to the Internet, but their actions are assisting to squash a just movement that the entire country needs to see. I, as a straight white male, am proud to call myself an LGBT ally and republishing Savannah’s video is the act that I am most proud to have been a part of at MormonLeaks.

3P

A Small Clarification

On January 13, 2017 Infants on Thrones released an interview with myself and Ryan McKnight, which you can find and listen to here. In this interview, when talking about WikiLeaks and responding to comparisons between them and MormonLeaks, I said at about 36:15 “WikiLeaks is dealing with information that is putting peoples’ lives in danger”. What I wish I would have said is that WikiLeaks deals with information that could potentially put peoples’ lives in danger. There are many claims that the information that WikiLeaks has released has put people’s lives in danger and have even led to deaths. I have not been presented with significant evidence that supports these claims so I have no reason to believe them. As an exmormon, I understand the dangers of misinformation by taking somebody in authority’s word as truth. I refuse to believe what cannot be proven to me, so I am compelled to believe that the information that WikiLeaks has released has not ever resulted in the loss of life.

3P

The Alarming Truth Behind My Anonymity

Recently an article entitled The Alarming Truth Behind Anti-Mormonism has made it’s way around the bloggernacle. It’s packed with jewel phrases such as “It is simply impossible to leave the Restored Gospel for another version of Christianity…” and “…most Atheists are unaware of where their belief system will lead society” (the author provides no data to support either claim). But I think the damage that is done by such an article be plainly seen in its title in the words “Anti-Mormonism”. It is this type of rhetoric that leads to strained, severed, and destroyed relationships between those who leave the church and their families. While it is true that not all Mormon families shun their loved ones who leave the church, it is no secret that it happens. Just spend a couple days on r/exmormon and you will see what I’m referring to. Or better yet I’ll save you the trouble: examples can be found here, here, here, here, and if you really want to go down that rabbit hole, here. It is this rhetoric that has led to my anonymity around my involvement of MormonWikiLeaks, and I am not anti-Mormon.

Zelph on the Shelf published a great response which claims that the majority of ex-Mormons do stay silent because they’re “too worried about how they’ll be treated by their friends and families to do anything but slip away quietly, hoping nothing dramatic will happen”. The author goes on to say that most Mormons “have been taught that ex-Mormons are so bad for so long that they simply cannot process the fact that someone they know and love actually is one.” This is disgraceful. But it is exactly what I am personally trying to avoid by protecting my identity. It is not because deep down I know that what I am doing is wrong or shameful; on the contrary, it is because I know that many hearts of people so dear to me will break to upon learning about my involvement in the project. It is likely that many will loose respect for my opinions, views, and even myself entirely. Many friends will probably stop talking to me. Rare will be the one who will try to understand my motives and the pain I’ve experienced that drives them. Nobody deserves to live in fear of such isolation.

I recently finished Deconverted by Seth Andrews. I related with his exit from Christianity not only because I have experienced many of the same feelings, but because he once found himself in a very similar situation. The founder of The Thinking Atheist, he too struggled with knowing when to be public about his creation. Several years past after the site’s inception when he finally decided to do so. He got the reactions that he expected out of his faithful friends and family. But he also recieved tremendous appreciation from others going through their own loss of faith. A loss of faith ultimately leads to a loss of identity, and no one should have to experience that without the support of those they love the most. Like Andrews, I hope to reveal my identity one day. I do not know when that will be, but I do know that much has to happen first. I need to be able to say what Andrews says in the acknowledgement page of his book:

…I have no doubt that our bond as a family can cross all barriers. The differences between us can now be the brands of individuality that make life all the more interesting, and it’s my hope that my entire family will celebrate the desire of each child and grandchild to find his or her own voice.

Once I can confidently say the same, I will feel comfortable revealing myself. Once we can all confidentaly say the same, the world will change.

3P

MormonWikiLeaks: The Back Story and My Personal Motivation

The Back Story

I am not the master mind behind MormonWikiLeaks. In fact, the idea was very far from being original. When the “November Policy” was made public by means of a leak, thousands began resigning in realization that they weren’t as privy to their religion’s policies and decisions as they had thought. Many leaks followed. Most weren’t incredibly noteworthy, but a few people began promoting themselves as a safe destination for leaked Mormon policy. In October 2016, Ryan McKnight made headlines when he released over a dozen videos of private meetings of top Mormon officials that were leaked to him by an inside source. The videos circulated and it became very obvious to many, including myself, that a more official medium and channel was necessary. Not to mention, the way in which the leaked material was being handled was not safe. In an interview on the Mormon Transitions podcast, McKnight states that the the tipper, while anonymous, contacted him and sent the videos via email. The whistleblower was already putting his or herself in great legal danger, and by not taking certain precautions, was risking their identity being revealed. It was about that time that I decided to contact to McKnight.

I, and many others, had a vision, admittedly inspired by WikiLeaks, of a website where a leaker could come and submit data specific to the Mormon Church without worry of ever being identified. I happen to have the professional background to facilitate such a site. My background coupled with my passion for privacy and the distast for the lack of transparency from the leaders of the Church, made it very apparent to me that I would like to be involved in such a project. I was fearful that others would beat me to the punch, so I contacted McKnight via Reddit. This was the first time I went by PrivacyPPratt. I was intentionally vague and did not want to reveal too much about myself yet. All I said was that I had the technical experience to build and deploy a platform to facilitate anonymous data leaks. At first he misread what I had wrote and thought I was coming to him with a leak. When that was clarified, a few days passed and I was getting anxious. I genuinely wanted to be part of the endeavor and was worried about someone else reaching out, so I messaged him again asking if he was interested in pursuing. He responded that he was skeptical about working with an anonymous person on such a large project. I informed him that I completely understood his hesitation and that if we could move the conversation to a more private and secure method of contact, I would reveal more details. I gave him information to reach me via Telegram. I remember thinking that I didn’t need to check my Reddit messages anymore, if he wanted to proceed, he knew how. I can’t remember if it was the same day or the day after, but I eventually recieved a message from McKnight informing me that other people had reached out to him and that he hadn’t made his decision on who to work with. He wanted some way to vet me and my experience. That was achieved fairly quickly and under paranoid precaution on my part, I still didn’t know what being associated to a project like this could potentially do to my career and I wanted to be very careful about revealing my indentity.

Over the course of a few days we continued to talk and he wanted to hear what I had in mind. We arranged to speak over the phone using Signal by Open Whisper Systems. It encrypts text messages and phone calls between two users both using the app. I would highly reccommend it if you want your conversations to stay private. I told him what I had in mind. A web application that didn’t log the IP address of any visitor, that could be accessed via the Tor Network, and scrubbed any metadata and watermarks from any documents submitted. He liked all of that, was impressed with my background and told me he wanted to move forward. I, quite honestly, was thrilled. I told him I could get it done in about two months considering I’d be working on it on nights and weekends in my free time. He accepted the timeline and we began work.

Soon another individual was brought into the project as an advisor, Ryan H. I love to collaborate with others and learn from them, so I was eager to see what Ryan H would bring to the table. He brought plenty of experience and a very similar background to myself. We agreed on pretty much the whole approach. At the time, I embarrassingly didn’t know about SecureDrop, the application that we ended up implementing, so I started writing my own application. I learned a lot in the process and was having a lot of fun working with both McKnight and Ryan H. However as time went on the project began to drop in my priority list. We hadn’t set a hard deadline, so it was easy to let it slide. I was motivated by the thoughts of what could potentially come of the site, but life happens and other things take precdence in the moment. So I decided to propose a deadline of December 19, 2016, just over two weeks away at the time. McKnight loved the idea and we decided to do it. It was then that I learned about SecureDrop from a very friendly Redditor. Again, that is slightly embarassing for me to admit that I had never heard of it before, but I believe in transparency and embracing vulnerability. So thanks, u/quasar-3c273! When I initially looked over the product, I was immediately intrigued solely by the fact that the code is maintained by the Freedom of the Press Foundation, an organization that I believe does some incredible work. After looking over the documentation and the feature set, it was overwhelmingly obvious that we needed to leverage it. The rest of the team (by this point we had brought on a web designer who as asked to remain anonymous) agreed and I went to work right away to get it to work in our environment. We also wanted to tweak the code just a bit to make it so Tor is not a requirement for submitting documents. I spent the next week and a half pouring over the documentation and code for SecureDrop. In the week leading up to the 19th, I pulled close to 4 all nighters learning how to implement and deploy SecureDrop in time. One night I went to bed early and got 10 hours of sleep to make up for it. Some things I was able to get in place on time, and other things I wasn’t, such as the implementation of HTTPS and Tor. Those features will likely still be implemented. I also plan on contributing to the development of SecureDrop over time. It is a truly incredible resource.

The night before the launch we had some technical difficulties that crept into the morning and delayed us for a few hours. That was the most stressed I have ever been in my life. But we pulled it off and the launch of the site had made headlines in the Washington Post and many newspapers in Utah. The Washington Post article made the front page of Reddit. That is by far one of the moments I am most proud of so far.

My Personal Motivations

I would be lying if I said I didn’t have major respect for people like Edward Snowden, Daniel Ellsberg, and Chelsea Manning. Many are probably going to twist that statement into saying that I’m a wannabe fanboy. While I think the actions of all three individuals were heroic, I believe the comparison of their situation to ours is not a fair one. McKnight has been compared to Julian Assange by almost every news outlet that has run the story, an even worse comparison. We’re not putting our mortal lives in danger or risking spending the rest of our lives in prison by exposing corrupt governments and the horrific things they do to their citizens, we are bringing transparency to an organization that has spent almost two centuries without it. To a religion asking for 10% of all their members’ gross income when they do not need that money. They own one of the largest, if not the largest, cattle ranches in North America. They built a multi billion dollar shopping mall in downtown Salt Lake City. They pay for every one of their beautifully ornate temples outright before construction even begins. All of this while encouraging their members to pay tithing even if it means not putting food on the table, because only those who pay their tithing can enter those beautiful temples and participate in the rituals that are required to go to highest level or heaven.

Aside from the financial, they perform secret ordinances that are kept completely quiet from the general membership. Up until recently, it was blasphemous to suggest that Joseph Smith was a polygamist. Their temple rituals come straight from the Freemason rituals. The church has been so good at hiding it’s origins, operations, finances, and history that when they publish unpopular truths themselves, true believing members still avoid reading them or even acknowleding their legitimacy. I haven’t even begun to mention the pain that has been inflicted to gay Mormons and their families by fighting the “homosexual agenda”. People have given their whole lives to the church. I know senior couples that have served over half a dozen missions for the church, given 10% of their income their whole lives, they deserve to know what is going on behind closed doors. If people learn all these facts and still decide to stay in the church, great! My goal is not to get people to leave, but to get them the information necessary to make an informed decision.

Your religion has just as much control over your life as your government does. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.

3P