President Donald Trump has received no shortage of publicity or scrutiny. But the news of former campaign chairman Paul Manafort being ordered to jail last month made headlines. A judge jailed Manafort after prosecutors claimed he attempted to tamper with the testimony of two potential witnesses in a criminal case he faces involving a Ukraine-related lobbying campaign. Manafort denies all charges and reports initially claimed that the witness tampering charges arose after he allegedly had a one minute and 26 second telephone conversation with a potential witness. But it has subsequently been revealed by a prosecutor in the case that Manafort had also used “foldering” to secretly communicate with potential witnesses.
During the resultant court hearing, as reported by Politico and Mother Jones, Greg Andres, an attorney from the office of special counsel Robert Mueller, alleged that Mr. Manafort had engaged in sharing an email account and its password with one or more or more witnesses involved in his case. CNN’s Marshall Cohen summarized on Twitter: “He made an email account and shared the password. He wrote messages but saved them as drafts, never sending actual emails. Other guys open the draft, read it, delete.” Attorneys representing Manafort vehemently deny any wrongdoing by their client.
The technique of using a draft email folder to share messages without transmitting them is apparently an old one. Long known to cyber-intelligence experts, foldering has been used by criminals, spies and cheating spouses for some time.
In the early 1980s, storing electronic files in “folders” went digital. According to research found on the web, a 1982 article in Byte Magazine, geeks “decided to create electronic counterparts to the physical objects in an office: paper, folders, file cabinets, mail boxes, and so on.” A decade later, a 1991 advertisement for Microsoft Mail 3.0 read, “There’s even click and drag foldering. Which gives you a better, more intuitive way to store and retrieve messages.”
According to Wall Street Journal contributor, Ken Zimmer, Kurt Opsahl, deputy executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told him, “While I’ve been following use of the technique for a long time, the Manafort case was the first time I noticed the specific term ‘foldering’ being used to describe it.” According to Opsahl, “the draft folder technique” or “dead-drop email,” method of secretly communicating is not new. For years, spies have used, “dead drops” (or “dead letter box”) to pass information to one another by covertly placing material at a secret location known only to their counterpart. Few spy movies don’t include at least one scene involving a spy making a “drop”.
So, it appears, foldering is just a cyber adaptation using nothing more than an electronic drop. Too bad for Manafort, the dead drop he used was on a computer that fell into the hands of his prosecutor. If true, all that can be said is, “better luck next time, chap”.