MormonWikiLeaks: The Back Story and My Personal Motivation

December 21, 2016  •  8 - 10 minute read

privacy p. pratt mormonism


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