Do you have something important to share about a Howard County, Maryland institution, process, public official, election, special interest group or land use & development issue?

 

SUBMIT A TIP!

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The HoCo Watchdogs Secure Reporting Platform is a new community tool for facilitating transparency, accountability, and the reduction of waste, fraud and abuse in Howard County, Maryland.

 

Many Howard County community members, public employees & officials are frustrated by the cumbersome, special-interest dominated local bureaucracy and yet are afraid to speak out against it, for fear of being politically targeted and publicly criticized.

 

Thanks to the secure information sharing technology provided by SecureDrop and Globaleaks, which accepts confidential & anonymous reports and encrypts them for short-term storage, important information can be shared with HoCo Watchdogs for further investigation and potential future public release as safely, securely and anonymously as possible.

OVERVIEW

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Goals


The HoCo Watchdogs Secure Reporting Platform is a tool that allows Howard County, Maryland residents, employees and elected officials to send information of public interest through secure technology that protects the identity of the source. Specific goals include:

  • Reduction of waste, fraud and abuse by local government administrations and taxpayer-funded institutions
  • Transparency into local government and school processes
  • Accountability for elected officials and public institutions
  • Increased public awareness of undue influences by special interest groups
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Amplifying your voice


Information received through the HoCo Watchdogs Secure Reporting Platform is researched & analyzed for veracity and potential publication on the HoCo Watchdogs blog.  Whether the information you submit serves as the launchpad for a larger investigation, becomes valuable supporting material in a HoCo Watchdogs blog post, or is discreetly disseminated to appropriate local media outlets & civil organizations, the HoCo Watchdogs Secure Reporting Platform will ensure that your voice is amplified securely and with maximum possible desired anonymity.

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Security


To ensure maximum confidentiality & security for sources,  the HoCo Watchdogs Secure Reporting Platform uses advanced digital security technology designed exclusively for confidential & anonymous information sharing.  The Confidential Submission site is powered by Globaleaks, an open source whistleblowing software platform trusted by civil watchdog organizations worldwide.  The Anonymous Submission site uses SecureDrop, an ultra secure whistleblower system currently in use by many major US & worldwide news organizations.

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Anonymity
 

Since every source’s situation is unique, the HoCo Watchdogs Secure Reporting Platform offers flexible choices for sending information.  The HoCoTips platform provides an easy way to submit confidential information using any web browser.  The SecureDrop platform provides an option for sources who require anonymity and a robustly secure way to submit information using the Tor web browser.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS (F.A.Q.)

Why was the HoCo Watchdogs Secure Reporting Platform created?

Motivation
Prior to officially founding HoCo Watchdogs, LLC in 2021, the author of the HoCo Watchdogs blog has independently reported and commented on a variety of important issues concerning the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) and other Howard County institutions & processes for the past two years.  Many of these posts have detailed and relied upon important information received from responses to Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) requests and from trustworthy, ethical sources within Howard County government institutions and organizations.

Having heard the experiences and frustrations of many Howard County community members & public employees about the cumbersome bureaucracy, inconsistency, costs and delays associated with the MPIA process and official local government oversight agencies, it has become clear that there is an urgent need for the ability to publicly share important information about taxpayer-funded county institutions & processes, public officials, and the influences of political & special interest groups as safely, securely and as anonymously as possible.

 

Solution

To facilitate this public need, an independent, community-led secure reporting and data sharing platform, the HoCoWatchdogs Secure Reporting Platform, has been implemented in partnership with the open source whistleblowing platforms GlobaLeaks and SecureDrop to provide the ability for all Howard County residents, employees & public servants to securely share relevant information about local affairs in a confidential, secure and (if desired) anonymous manner.

GlobaLeaks is a trusted secure whistleblowing platform, used worldwide for such applications as investigative journalism, anti-corruption, human rights protection, and corporate complianceSecureDrop is a an ultra secure whistleblower system current in use by many major US & worldwide news organizations, including the Washington Post, the New York Times, The Guardian, The Intercept, Forbes and ABC.

What kind of information should be submitted to the HoCo Watchdogs Secure Reporting Platform?

Recommended topics for submission to the HoCo Watchdogs Secure Reporting Platform include:

  • Illegal, unethical and/or immoral actions by Howard County elected officials & candidates.
  • Bloated, unnecessary, and/or abused contracts that waste Howard County taxpayer dollars (e.g. fraud, mismanagement, wasteful / unjustified nepotism).
  • Examples of poor accountability of Howard County tax dollars (e.g. budget requests not based on evaluation of programs, lack of community involvement in processes, ignoring community input etc.).
  • Violations of Maryland procurement law.
  • Concerning Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) policies curriculum and/or actions taken by administrators & staff.
  • Special treatment or favoritism by HCPSS or Howard County government.
  • Actions to silence or deny services to those who speak up, question or challenge HCPSS & Howard County government policies & officials.
  • Open Meetings Act violations, including public officials circumventing the Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) by discussing public business on private messaging & email accounts.
  • Suggestions for local MPIA submissions to obtain relevant information from HCPSS and the Howard County government that is in the public interest and valuable for public awareness.
  • Significant undue influence by political parties, political activists and special interest groups on Howard County government & HCPSS decision-making.
  • Election campaign finance violations by Howard County candidates.


If you have suggestions for other examples to include on this list, please send them to: hocowatchdogs@protonmail.com

How do I submit information to the HoCo Watchdogs Secure Reporting Platform?

Sending your report to HoCo Watchdogs can be done in two ways:

 

ConfidentialUsing your web browser of choice, you may file a report on the Globaleaks-powered HoCoTips platform at this link: https://hocotips.com/#/ .

 

You may choose to identify yourself by either your name or a pseudonym. The contents of your report will be encrypted and stored on the Globaleaks-based server for a short period of time.

 

Followup secure correspondence regarding your report is available via the Secure Messaging Service provided by the Globaleaks platform.

 

Anonymous:  When you require maximum security and anonymity, you may access the HoCo Watchdogs SecureDrop platform using the Tor browser to reach this link: http://h6chnqoo6exltmqgin6j2xepk5csebytg4hxvmjmb2otvt3dw5be6cyd.onion/ .

 

Before submitting a report, read the SecureDrop Source Guide and watch this overview video for more information on SecureDrop usage and risks.

For security reasons, we advise you, especially if you are uploading documents, not to use your home or work network, but instead to use a public Wi-Fi network.  Alternately, you can start up your computer from a USB key loaded with the Tails secure operating system, which is available at https://tails.boum.org and includes the Tor web browser.

Once you launch the Tor browser, copy and paste the URL h6chnqoo6exltmqgin6j2xepk5csebytg4hxvmjmb2otvt3dw5be6cyd.onion into the Tor address bar. When the page loads, you will find further instructions on how to submit files and messages to the HoCo Watchdogs SeceureDrop server.

You will be assigned a randomly generated and unique code phrase. If HoCo Watchdogs wants to contact you about the information you have submitted, they will leave a message for you in SecureDrop. The messages can only be accessed using your code name. These messages are the only way HoCo Watchdogs will be able to reach you.

After submission, your report will be encrypted and stored on a SecureDropbased ultra secure server for a short period of time.  Your report will only be decryptable with a GNU Privacy Guard (GPG) key that is stored on an air-gapped ‘Secure Viewing Station’, completely off-network and robustly secure against outside intrusion.


Followup secure correspondence regarding your report is available via the Secure Messaging Service provided by the SecureDrop platform.

How does the HoCo Watchdogs Secure Reporting Platform maximize my security & privacy?

Globaleaks
When a report is filed on the Globaleaks-powered HoCoTips platform, the data is encrypted using PGP (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pretty_Good_Privacy) and the system automatically notifies HoCo Watchdogs of the submission.

GlobaLeaks platforms do not store anything permanently and the submitted information and files are deleted as soon as possible with a strict data retention policy.

Your identity will be kept confidential unless and until you indicate otherwise and the information you provide to HoCoTips will be anonymized in any publications in which it is used.

HoCoTips offers a secure messaging system via the Globaleaks platform to maintain contact after submitting information, while further research is conducted.

 

A complete F.A.Q. about Globaleaks security is available here

 

SecureDrop
For sources who require strict anonymity, the HoCo Watchdogs SecureDrop platform is designed to minimize digital trails using best practices, such as:

  • Limiting collection of information logged about your browser, computer or operating system
  • Using the Tor browser to encrypt and anonymize your communications with us
  • Encrypting all submissions stored on the HoCo Watchdogs SecureDrop system
  • Physically isolating the SecureDrop ‘Secure Viewing System’ from the rest of our network.SD_diagram

A complete F.A.Q. about SecureDrop is available here

Caveat: No system is 100% secure, and even with these measures, there might be a risk of someone discovering who you are or what you are sending.

What will HoCo Watchdogs do with information submitted to its Secure Reporting Platform?

Information submitted to the HoCo Watchdogs Secure Reporting Platform will be researched and analyzed to confirm its veracity.  HoCo Watchdogs will leverage all available community contacts & sources, social media platforms and other local resources to further research and confirm the information it receives.  No submitted information will be considered for publication until it meets a high bar of veracity and is able to be corroborated by other verifiable sources or pieces or evidence.

Once confidently proven, the information will either
1) be used as the foundation of further research in a larger investigation
2) be included as valuable supporting information in a HoCo Watchdogs blog post and/or
3) be discreetly disseminated to appropriate local media outlets & civil organizations on a need-to-know basis.

The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics will unofficially serve as the basis by which HoCo Watchdogs determines whether or not to publish any or all of the submitted information and if so, in what form.

Ready to use to the HoCo Watchdogs Secure Reporting Platform?

For Confidential submissions: Use any internet browser to access the HoCoTips platform at: https://www.hocotips.com/#/
Detailed instructions on how to submit your report can be found here 

For Anonymous submissions: Before submitting a report, read the SecureDrop Source Guide and watch this overview video for more information on SecureDrop usage and risks.

Download the Tor browser and access the HoCo Watchdogs SecureDrop platform at: http://h6chnqoo6exltmqgin6j2xepk5csebytg4hxvmjmb2otvt3dw5be6cyd.onion/

Important Notes on Ensuring Personal & Technical Anonymity

The following is advised to further enhance your security when submitting a report:

 

For the Globaleaks-powered HoCoTips platform

  •   In the event that you would like to remain anonymous, do not submit any personal information. (e.g. name, contact information, or any other information that can be directly traced back to you.)
  • Do not submit your report on a computer, phone or internet connection provided by your employer.  This may jeopardize your anonymity.
  • If you would like to ensure maximum technical anonymity when you submit a report (i.e. ensuring that you have an anonymous computer IP address), please download and install the Tor Internet Browser.  After installing the Tor browser, you may access the HoCoTips Watchdogs report submission site with the following link: http://urjtbjk3kaimyr57nu62ljmf2ft45fsjo7sotqydojnfiargeovdaeyd.onion/

For the SecureDroppowered HoCo Watchdogs SecureDrop platform

  • Use a secure computer to communicate with us – one that does not maintain enterprise software or malware that might be used to record your activities
  • Use an operating system that helps preserve your privacy and anonymity, such as Tails
  • Delete trails of communication that you store on your computer, such as copies of messages or your secure codename assigned when using the service
  • Run any files you sent to us through a metadata-scrubbing tool (e.g. https://metacleaner.com/ ) to minimize the risk of unintentionally sending us information embedded in the documents, such as an author’s name.

Disclaimer

All information submitted to the HoCo Watchdogs Secure Reporting Platform may be shared with third parties and/or published in the public domain.  Uploading of content to the platform is no guarantee that an article will be published referencing that data.

 

The provisions of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics ( https://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp ) will unofficially serve as the basis to determine whether or not information submitted to HoCoTips is published.

 

Choosing to use an internet browser other than the Tor Browser to submit a report to HoCoTips will result in only partial ability to protect your technical anonymity (i.e. IP address) from third parties.

 

When submitting information to the HoCo Watchdogs Secure Reporting Platform, please understand that despite the robust security measures in place on this platform, no system is 100% secure.  Even with these security measures, there might be a risk of someone discovering who you are or what you are sending.

 

HoCo Watchdogs works diligently to protect the identities of sources and keep the information they submit to the HoCo Watchdogs Secure Reporting Platform confidential.  HoCo Watchdogs, LLC does not make any warranties as to the functionality of Globaleaks and SecureDropIt is the responsibility of the source to research the proper usage and security limitations of these tools prior to submitting a report.  Use of the Globaleaks-powered HoCoTips system and the HoCo Watchdogs SecureDrop system is on an “as is” basis, at your own risk.