Blog - BS Data, hackery, stories

VICE / McAfee: who's the leak?

For John McAfee, no more running around. Today, questions linked to his arrest in Guatemala are being raised, and they also concern Vice and Robert King.

Robert King is a war photojournalist whose speciality –over than corpses- is to go right to the source. He’s already ailed down Julian Assange and Moqtada al Sadr, amongst others.
Jean-Paul Mari wrote a very good portrait of the man in his blog, Carnets d’un grand reporter. He describes him as an “extra-terrestrial”, as a madman dreaming of wars and photography, intent on getting the Pulizzer prize before reaching 30. Maybe so, but he’s a madman with talent –or in any case a madman people talk about. As is maybe unavoidable for a young crazy journalist, he crossed path with Vice, an international monthly magazine based in Canada, with an editorial line quite radical, even vulgar, very urban and free. Vice is not afraid of anything, and neither are the editing team. Sex, drugs and alcohol are recurrent topics and 'expeditions to the heart of revolutions and other hot spots are commonplace. So of course Vice and King became business partners, as this article explains. He works with Polaris which, although not magnum has nonetheless a solid reputation. We saw his images in the New York Times’ LENS blog and in Paris Match…

We already introduced John McAfee, the founder of the eponymous internet security company whose, at 67, is still dashing and wanted by the police about a case of manslaughter in Belize. He’s a sulphurous character, keen on guns, sex and drugs, after whom the media have set their dogs on.
As Rue89 reported in an earlier issue of its blog, this manhunt ended at the beginning of December, when Vice reporters published a picture of McAfee alongside the GPS coordinates, thus revealing where the fugitive was hiding. The photo is credited to Robert king and was taken with a 4S iPhone.

It was then a big mistake, which cost one of Vice’s sources his freedom.
But then again, there seems to be more to it. According to Rue89 and Wired's sources, Robert King posted on his Facebook page and his Twitter account messages stating that McAfee had deliberately modified the GPS data to create a fake lead. It is obviously meaningless to reveal such information when the scheme is barely in place. Strangely, these messages were deleted as soon as McAfee declared that the GPS data had indeed been published, via his blog, blaming a Vice technician for the error.
Following this, Vice gave out an official bulletin:

“Was it an error? Were we taken for a ride ? Did we mess up? […] Vice has decided to wait and talk to the guys who were on te ground at that time and who can tell us what really hapened, so that we don’t carry on spreading the rumours, myths and silliness this story has been about since its inception. »

In the meantime, McAfee has been extradited to the USA after having been jailed, and then hospitalised, in Guatemala City.

It is all things considered Robert King’s role in this affair that is the most intriguing. If we believe Vice, he’s the guy who took the litigious photo, with a iPhone 4S. We talked to Robert King, because it is a troubling question: how can a photographer of his calibre make such a gross mistake? And that’s saying nothing of Vice who, although quite used to sensitive information and exclusivities, let these metadata through…
King replies that he is seeking legal advice regarding this matter, to protect himself from all the stuff he was bombarded with these past few weeks, and from this leak he’s accused of. More surprisingly, he says that he doesn’t actually owns an iPhone and therefore of not publishing geo-localisation data. “We can see he’s feeling very ill at ease and fearing for his reputation, preferring denying everything for now. It is actually the best way to go at it: not only is he accused of publishing the image with its geo-location data, but also of having purposefully lied, via his Facebook page, to cover McAfee, thus becoming an accomplice in his flight, and not remaining a simple journalist, a witness. Finally, if he doesn’t have an iPhone and didn’t share this image, who did?

We can see this in the press release itself : Vice themselves don’t know what is going on. The magazine is enable to clarify the facts: is it a mistake? If it is, who is responsible? Is it a setup? If it is, against whom ? Against McAfee, so he can be apprehended, or against Vice ? As far as mcAfee is concerned, his view is perfectly clear : on September 11, he announced on his blog that he was dropping out of any relationship with Vice Magazine, in view that « according to new information », he couldn’t be sure anymore that this leak was accidental. According to him, it was orchestrated in order to get exclusive video footage of his arrest-which Vice did, after all.

This clears the two journalists who followed him (Robert King and Rocco Castoro), pointing out that he did not think they knew in advance of Vice’s plan to sell him to the police.
Even if King didn’t know Vice was framing McAfee, there is still this iPhone mystery to deal with.

Wilfrid Estève, President of the foundation FreeLens, finds the hypothesis of a frame operation by Vice rather farfetched. According to him, the error would have been caused by the publishing team who, because of its lack of a proper picture editor, didn’t verify the image’s metadata and published it too quickly, an error apparently “representative of web redaction teams”
So, is the culprit web 2.0 of over-connected and automatic sharing-enabled smartphones? Mr Estève remarks that this new work environment makes it possible for unverified information to be published widely, when in the past such information would have been filtered and checked. For him, what will be remembered from this case is a crass error from the redaction team, not the scoops the reporters worked on. End of story.
Thomas Coex, picture manager for the French section of AFP, concurs:
“Journalistic works requires a filter: the photographer sends his pictures to the image desk, and they validate them or not, alongside the captions. It is the only guaranty of a rigorous approach to work. Web medias must be just as rigorous, because publishing any image willy nilly as soon as it is received can be very damaging”.

In any case, Vice will come out of it on top : « if McAfee is innocent, they’ll say that they were on call to document this and defend him ; if he is charged, then they’ll have helped justice to be done and they’ll have a readymade article about it », Noted Wired. Vice shrugs this off: a source within the magazine told us that: ”in any case, credibility is not really our main selling point!”.