Sundev Lohr contributed research and writing to this post.

How can you share war stories online, in real time, without compromising operational security? Can a reporting system be designed to ensure that, while in the field, your story can be communicated without giving the enemy information they could use to harm you? Can you censor reporting while maintaining journalistic integrity?

These were the critical questions we considered during a Skype conference call in September with Basetrack’s Teru Kuwayama, Balazs Gardi and Tivadar Dominizcky the day before the team left for Camp Leatherneck, Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Basetrack is an independent, civilian media project funded by a 2010 Knight News Challenge grant.

Teru and Major Justin Ansel, the executive officer for First Battalion, Eighth Marines, had arranged to embed six journalists for the duration of the Marines’ seven-month deployment. Teru asked us to develop and design a website to allow the journalists to post location-specific reports in real time.

The topic for this Skype meeting was how we were going to play ball with the Marines: To keep the project alive, we needed to create custom software that would allow Major Ansel to censor the Basetrack website.

Prepping for censorship

When Teru swung the computer’s camera around the small room of his Brooklyn apartment, we could see it was packed with flack jackets, iPhone accessories, and “go-bags” (or “oh shit kits,” as we know them) with flashlights, batteries, ruggedized camera equipment, bivy sacks, emergency food and medical supplies. There was probably some order to it, but only Teru knew it.

Teru looked like the thousand-armed Buddhist deity Avalokiteśvara holding his phone, child, and countless tools. While packing bags and grabbing last-minute electronic components, he entertained his 4-year-old daughter, wrote emails, IM’d, tweeted, Facebooked, made travel arrangements for his fellow “trackers,” and shared his ideas for software that would allow a Marine to administrate and redact the Basetrack blog.

Teru explained the software’s logic: The censors couldn’t have admin rights on the Basetrack publishing back-end because they might go in and alter, or even erase, the journalists’ work. So the redaction software had to have a custom, secure and limited entry point. He also wanted the system to allow for transparent censorship — the viewer would be aware of who censored content and why they did it. And the system would archive the original post to a secure database while furnishing the new, redacted post to the public website.

What journalist wants to give someone the rights to redact their work? Well, when the fallout from too much information on the site could help an insurgent shed the blood of a Marine or a member of your own team, you might want someone looking over your shoulder… at least we did.

How the software works

Here’s the basic flow of the system:

  1. Journalist creates a post
  2. Journalist alerts the major there is a post in the queue that needs review.
  3. Major reviews the post, redacting media deemed sensitive.
  4. Major pushes the “big red button” which archives the original post to a secure database and copies the redactions to the live, public version of the site.

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Step No. 3 was the core of the redaction tool. We knew the journalists would upload all types of media, including text, images, video and audio. With audio and video, we made it all or nothing — either the whole thing was redacted or it was left alone. However, with text and images, we developed a system that allowed for targeted redactions.

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We wanted the text to look like a censored dossier so it would be obvious to viewers they were viewing a redacted version of the journalist’s work. We designed a tool that allowed the major to highlight and black out sections of text by hitting the “redact” button. But, we couldn’t just black out and leave the text beneath intact because someone could easily look at the source code and discover the original language. We designed the software to count the number of characters the major marked for redaction, then replace the original characters with zeros.

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The images required a more complicated tool. We created a drawing tool Major Ansel could use to draw black polygons on top of imagery. The placement of the polygon on the image was recorded and then, when saved, a new image was created by merging the image and the polygon. Each image appeared in multiple sections of the site. The software had the job of finding every version of the image and rendering a newly redacted version.

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The actual redaction for the image above can be viewed here.

The journalists also requested the redactions be non-destructive: The original content must be preserved and relatively easy to restore in the future. This required creating archives of the redacted images and text before the media was redacted.

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The system also demanded the major enter in a reason any time a redaction was made. This added a layer of transparency to the censorship process.

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Meeting the needs of both sides

In traditional journalism, readers or viewers have no idea when censorship takes place. If material is edited out, viewers generally are not aware of it. We created a system that lets journalists post freely to Basetrack.org, without compromising security. The redaction system allows journalists to maintain their integrity while letting the Marines censor sensitive information, thereby satisfying both sides. It might put the power of censorship in the Marines’ hands, but by forcing them to disclose their identities and explain their rationale, we’ve managed to infuse an inherently obscure process with transparency.

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