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Older, quieter than WikiLeaks, Cryptome perseveres

Saturday - 3/9/2013, 12:15pm  ET

This Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013 photo shows Cryptome co-founder John Young in New York. "I'm a fierce opponent of government secrets of all kinds," says John Young. "The scale is tipped so far the other way that I'm willing to stick my neck out and say there should be none." (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

DAVID CRARY
AP National Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- The FBI came calling after maps of urban rail tunnels and gas lines were posted online. Microsoft aggressively complained following the website's publication of a confidential handbook on company policies for helping police. Other critics have gone further, warning that some of the postings could aid America's enemies.

Yet Cryptome carries on.

The website, unfamiliar to the general public, is well-known in circles where intelligence tactics, government secrets and whistle-blowing are primary concerns. Since its creation in 1996, Cryptome has amassed more than 70,000 files -- including lists of secret agents, high-resolution photos of nuclear power plants, and much more.

Its co-founder and webmaster, a feisty 77-year-old architect, doesn't hesitate when asked why.

"I'm a fierce opponent of government secrets of all kinds," says John Young. "The scale is tipped so far the other way that I'm willing to stick my neck out and say there should be none."

Young describes several exchanges with federal agents over postings related to espionage and potential security breaches, though no charges have ever been filed. And he notes that corporate complaints of alleged copyright violations and efforts to shut Cryptome down have gone nowhere.

For Young, there's a more persistent annoyance than these: the inevitable comparisons of Cryptome to WikiLeaks, the more famous online secret-sharing organization launched by Julian Assange and others in 2006.

Young briefly collaborated with WikiLeaks' creators but says he was dropped from their network after questioning plans for multimillion-dollar fundraising. Cryptome operates on a minimal budget -- less than $2,000 a year, according to Young, who also shuns WikiLeaks-style publicity campaigns.

"We like the scholarly approach -- slow, almost boring," says Young. He likens Cryptome to a "dusty, dimly lit library."

That's not quite the image that Reader's Digest evoked in 2005, in an article titled "Let's Shut Them Down." Author Michael Crowley assailed Cryptome as an "invitation to terrorists," notably because of its postings on potential security vulnerabilities.

Cryptome's admirers also don't fully buy into Young's minimalist self-description.

"He lives by his ideals and doesn't pull any punches," said Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates for online free speech and privacy rights.

"People like John serve as a really important safety valve for the rest of us, as to what our government is up to," Cohn said.

Young considers himself a freedom-of-information militant, saying he is unbothered by "the stigma of seeming to go too far."

Claims that Cryptome aids terrorists or endangers intelligence agents are "hokum," he said.

"We couldn't possibly publish information to aid terrorists that they couldn't get on their own," he said, depicting his postings about security gaps as civic-minded.

"If you know a weakness, expose it, don't hide it," he said.

Young attributes his anti-authoritarian outlook to a hard-up childhood in West Texas as the son of an Odessa-based oil-field worker. He joined the Army at 17, serving in Germany and elsewhere in the mid-1950s, attended Texas Tech for a year, then transferred to Rice University in Houston, where he earned bachelor's degrees in philosophy and architecture.

By the end of the 1960s, he was a widowed father of four, based in New York City with a master's degree in architecture from Columbia University. He also developed a host of connections to social activists, due in part to his role as a sort of elder statesman among fellow graduate students during the 1968 campus protests at Columbia.

By 1973, he had his own architecture practice in New York, and in 1993 he met fellow architect/scholar Deborah Natsios, a CIA agent's daughter who became his wife and colleague. They co-founded Cryptome in 1996 as an outgrowth of their involvement with Cypherpunks, an informal network which -- early in the Internet era -- was assessing the use of cryptography to shield private communications from government surveillance.

As a motto of sorts, the Cryptome home page offers a quote from psychiatrist Carl Jung: "The maintenance of secrets acts like a psychic poison which alienates the possessor from the community."

The website says Cryptome welcomes classified and confidential documents from governments worldwide, "in particular material on freedom of expression, privacy, cryptology, dual-use technologies, national security, intelligence, and secret governance."

Young attributes Cryptome's longevity and stature to its legion of contributors, most of them anonymous, who provide a steady stream of material to post.

Among the most frequently downloaded of Cryptome's recent postings were high-resolution photos of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Japan after it was badly damaged in the March 2011 tsunami/earthquake disaster.

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