Wikileaks publishes massive archive of private 9/11 pager messages

NYC snapshot (cross-shaped cloud?), a few days after 9/11, by BB reader Todd Warner

[Photo by BB reader Todd Warner. More about the image after the jump.]

As promised, Wikileaks is releasing on to the 'net more than half a million confidential pager messages sent around September 11, 2001. The data includes pager messages sent by officials from the NYPD and the Pentagon, as well as citizens who witnessed the collapse of the twin towers. As I scroll through the archives, though, what strikes me as most fascinating is the jumbled mix: plaintive, automated cries from printers who've gone offline, or servers begging for a reboot -- those pings are jammed up against urgent ALL-CAPS messages from wives asking their husbands to please call and let them know they're still alive. There are commands for officials to "meet in the situation room." And texts from disgruntled corporate employees, asking why their bosses don't just give them the day off already. There's not much fodder for conspiracy theorists, but there's a lot of random weirdness:

2001-09-11 09:15:38 Arch [1376997] B ALPHA (27)Hey Honey! Can you bring some bagels when you get back? The pork chop is now crying about the World Trade Center plane crash. Geez! It is scray but no reason to cry. Talk to you later! I love you!
And personal messages like this, odd in the context of great tragedy:
Good morning sexy man!! Got my zebra thongs on!!! Feeling a little animalistic!!!
Others make you stop and think -- did this person die moments later? Did this person narrowly escape death?
2001-09-11 07:51:33 Skytel [002691994] C ALPHA TAKE YOUR TIME. I WILL NOT BE AT 1WTC UNTIL 9:30 A.M. THANKS, SHAWN
The mundane, the mechanical, the meta, all in one data dump.

Some media coverage: Guardian, Telegraph.

The people at Wikileaks say they published the intercepts as a "completely objective record of the defining moment of our time".

As Kevin Poulsen at Wired News points out, it sounds like the data may have come from an organized, collaborative effort -- not just one person.

"While we are obligated by to protect our sources, it is clear that the information comes from an organization which has been intercepting and archiving national US telecommunications since prior to 9/11."
So many messages from so many different network sources -- all carriers? Where did this data come from? My bet is on a military or government agency, or a firm that provides commercial analytics services. Or, some combination thereof.

Declan McCullagh, whose politech email list I stayed glued to on 9/11/2001 and on the days following, has the best last word on the pager intercepts. Snip from his report for CBS News:

This should be a lesson to anyone who would prefer their personal details not go on public display: Without end-to-end encryption, and perhaps even with it, your correspondence is vulnerable to interception and publication. And if you're the Secret Service responding to threats against the president, or FEMA organizing an evacuation to an underground bunker, why are you letting anyone with a $10 pager and a Windows laptop watch what you're doing?
9/11 tragedy pager intercepts. (Wikileaks)

Related: Reddit thread is here.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Click for full size.

Boing Boing reader Todd Warner shared this with us. See the cross-shape in the sky? He says it's a picture he took a few days after 9/11. Todd's life partner found it years later and scanned it for us to blog. My money's on lens flare. Todd explains:

You can see the smoke from the site. No one would ever publish it at the time, because I think they think I was some kind of religious nut... I'm not. Just find it interesting and kind of cool. This is a poor scan of the original picture but I checked the negative and the cross is there (upper right in the sky).

I was rollerblading on the west side of New York that morning headed south. When I was about a mile away from the World Trade Center, I noticed a low passenger plane out of the corner of my eye over midtown that looked like it was in trouble. I thought I was going to witness a terrible accident but assumed the pilot would try to go into the Hudson. Watched in horror as it plowed into WTC 1. Oddly, I immediately looked at my hands to see if I was really there. Literally thought I was having a nightmare. At that point since it was out of the clear blue, I assumed it was an accident. Couldn't fathom that anyone could have done it on purpose. By the time I got back to my apartment the second plane had hit.


  1. To me, it looks more like a lens flare than a cloud formation, if you notice the horizontal line curves slightly, indicating it’s the shadow cast by what little lip the lens has at the top.

    1. Yup, it’s lens flare. Hardly odd, hardly unusual, and absolutely not miraculous, nor a “cloud”.

      The horizontal artifact is probably caused by shadow falling across the lens, possibly from the lens’s own recessed housing.

  2. If this brings up feelings of anger for you that cause you to berate anyone who thinks this is a wonderful thing, then the terrorists are winning.

  3. And the sad thing is already the Bushies are working on having us forget just how awful the terrorist attack was.

    Dana Perino yesterday to Hannity: “We did not have a terrorist attack on our country during President Bush’s term”

  4. We complain that the government has us under constant surveillance, but we applaud when somebody publishes what were supposed to be private communications? I don’t get it. Yes, it’s fascinating and all, but how is this a good thing when reading and publishing somebody’s private postal correspondence is a bad thing? Didn’t AOL get burned for publishing anonymized search queries? How is this different?

    1. But when personal privacy is cast aside under the guise of being wonderful those feelings of foreboding just melt away.


    “Bush has taped his remarks so he could leave his position. Can you come home and have lunch with me? They believe at least 10,000 people have been killed in the World Trade Center.”

    “American Airlines says it “lost” two aircraft carrying 156 people.”

    “i’m so naughty :-)|Welcome to my Wet Dungeon.. When you click on this link, we will take you on journey of Pleasure and Pain which y”

    “I love you|Keep your head low and spirits high – you can do this. All my love Kelley”

    “d hoping you’re ok where ever you are. It’s time like these that remind me to make sure the ones I love know they’re loved.. I love you. Robin”

  6. Lens flare. The dark shadow across the top suggests something else was casting a shadow on the lens, perhaps a baseball cap the photographer was wearing. It must be a cheap point-and-shoot camera (dSLR’s don’t generally do timestamps) which also means likely a plastic lens, which would explain the texture in the flare. On glass lenses the lens flare would be cleaner.

    That’s my opinion at least ;-)

    1. @xeni

      By posting the link and excerpting the messages, you are participating in the dissemination of these private communications. If you don’t condone it, why would you do that? You could have just reported the fact of the release without publishing parts of it. So, no, you don’t say “applaud,” but it’s not a neutral post, it’s an active participation.

    2. @Xeni: by not condemning the revealing of private correspondence, the post implicitly condones the practice. You wrote “…more than half a million confidential pager messages…” and yet you seem to have no qualms about propagating links to these confidential messages. After all, if you truly thought it was wrong for Wikileaks to post those pages, you could have at the very least declined to provide a link to them while still reporting on their being released.

      But really, I’m not criticizing your post so much as the folks at Wikileaks who publicized the info to begin with.

  7. “my shit ain’t good enough to eat or lick.”


    “Tell laura, I’m going ge her for this! It’s a prsentaton by cisco on how to do E-commererce. 8 fucking hours of how ecommerce works.”

    “What the fuck is going on? I’ve been inside a building all morning with no TV. ”

    “Talk about a shitty day… ”

    “Message from a two-way device Txt: they r showing people jumping out of windows(incredible shit) P WIZ”

    “interrupting u have u heard the shit thats goin down im really scared and i wish u were Love you always Richard”

  8. “Talked with your mom. She wants me to go get the girls from school. Dennis’ secretary at American Airlines was on that plane this morning. Incredible….”


  9. Some people never leave their personal world of crazy, no matter what is going on around them…






    After that I had to stop looking for their pages.

  10. [ I am now calculating how much mo..] [..ney I am going to collect from your life insurance policies because..if you don’t call me now!! to tell me you’re not dead, I am going to kill you! ]

    I read too much. This is (obviously) heavy shit.

  11. I can’t see how this will sway 9-11 “Truthers” one way or another.

    I also wonder if any of my SMS messages are there.

    I’d love to make a word cloud of the messages that changes over time.

  12. Yikes, and another “exploding towers” image, and the day before Thanksgiving! And this with my exploitative-9-11-images antibodies depleted after their yearly peak in September! Ugh. No thanks for that one.

  13. lovemycoffeehouse: of course there was texting and paging in 2001. People who worship at the feet of the iSteve seem to forget that in 2001 people were already carrying around the brilliant BlackBerry 957 which had full email and peer-to-peer messaging on the Mobitex network. The Mobitex net, along with some vestigial Ricochet nodes, was the only network that continued to work smoothly during and after the attacks.

    Also, you could use Mobitex on a damn airplane.

  14. The little polygons means it’s lens flare – It’s great that Todd didn’t try and push it as a miracle, but the image is still a good allegory. Good photojournalism often does reference iconic symbols, like Eugene Smith’s photo of Tomoko Uemura, being bathed by her mother after she had been born paralyzed by mercury released into the environment by a negligent company. The photo has been compared to the Pieta.

  15. Reading through some of it was like living the day over again…
    08:51:50 Fire!!!

    09:38:49 Lauren’s father works in the WTC. I may drive her home. I’ll keep you posted. This is really f’d up.

    09:43:09 now they got the pentagon. it’s a friggin war

    10:00:10 I am so scared! Please be careful!

    10:00:57 John, Mike has left the bldg. They can’t reach Chad (son) – he works at the Pentagon and are very worried..LJ

    10:01:01 xxx@SOCSO.SOUTHCOM.MIL||We are at Threatcon Charlie until further notice.


    10:25:10 The second world trade building is gone!!!!!!!!!

    10:28:10 Scary stuff going on. I’ll be surprised if its not an Arab. Worried for Farid. Will they round us up? Yikes! D.

  16. I have to agree with the poster who questioned BoingBoing’s stance in relation to these text messages. These are intensly personal, tragic messages and to have them dissemenated to an audience without consent – even if the people aren’t identified – is terrible.

    There can be no excuse about pointing out the interception of messages. That could have been accomplished without excerpting the text-messages.

    Whether there is any ‘applause’ on the part of BoingBoing is largely meaningless. Firstly, there is no condemnation, which is interesting since if it had been the carrier releasing this, I’d expect to see you guys howling.

    Secondly, irrespective of whether you condone the actions you have a moral responsibility not to further the message’s spread. I hesitate to use the example, but your callous disregard for the people sending these messages has me upset. Assume for a moment that instead of text-messages, this was illegal pornography. In that case, you would be entitled to report on it, but not to direct or reproduce it. Now explain why the situation should be different for a mass breach of privacy.

    Also, this seems to be outside of Wikileak’s mandate, doesn’t it?

  17. Personally, I think that publishing this is outrageous and completely out of kilter with BB’s usual stance on personal privacy. How dare we look through people’s private messages without their permission, simply for our own amusement? The fact that it covers such an emotive period, where many people still have extremely raw feelings only makes matters worse. Drawing more attention to this abuse diminshes Boingboing.

  18. The 207 PC suspect surrendered at VPD. He gave a complete statement and will be booked for Kidnap for Ransom

  19. I would like to agree with an above poster. Please stop using the Twin Towers image everytime you do a post about 9/11 – it is a jarring and unwelcomed image to pop up randomly. Worse. than. goatsee. And I’m not joking.

  20. By posting the link and excerpting the messages, you are participating in the dissemination of these private communications. If you don’t condone it, why would you do that? You could have just reported the fact of the release without publishing parts of it. So, no, you don’t say “applaud,” but it’s not a neutral post, it’s an active participation.

    That’s ridiculous. This is not a story that appeals solely to prurient interest. These texts are fascinating window into that horrible day, and it is extremely unlikely that anyone will be harmed or humiliated as a result of their publication. Don’t miss the point in your rush to judgment.

    1. @42

      Wikileaks did not scrub the data at all. There are full names, there are instructions to call such and such a phone number. The people *are* identifiable.

      Regardless, the notion that the entire world might be disecting what might have been a loved one’s last message – regardless if they ascribe it to a face – seems abhorent to me.

      These messages do not appear to be exclusively from public officials. They certainly contain private information.

      And to everyone who says “Well this is really interesting”. Fine. You’re accepting that society can limit privacy rights in the interest of societal good. In this case the relatively minor good that is your amusement/fascination. If that’s legitimate, all the privacy infractions Britain’s proposing have to be legitimate as well.

  21. Personally, I think that publishing this is outrageous and completely out of kilter with BB’s usual stance on personal privacy. How dare we look through people’s private messages without their permission, simply for our own amusement? The fact that it covers such an emotive period, where many people still have extremely raw feelings only makes matters worse. Drawing more attention to this abuse diminshes Boingboing.

    If these messages are being sent by public officials using public equipment, then they are not private.

  22. RE. the image, it’s amazing how personal experience plays in here. Looking at the picture I never would have guessed that it had anything to do with 9/11, even if you prompted me with ‘what major historical event is depicted in this picture’. There’s no sign of disaster at all (at least in the picture that was up when I saw this article).

  23. After hours of reading reddit, this is one of the less paranoid and more interesting posts:

    sjwk 7 points8 points9 points 1 hour ago* [-]
    Wow. Some interesting snapshots into life on that day, both official and personal. Saw this find referenced elsewhere but not here so dug around to find the records in question:

    2001-09-11 10:24:31 Skytel [005344006] B ALPHA TWINKLE AND TURQ ARE ACCOUNTED FOR AND SAFE 2001-09-11 10:28:31 Skytel [005344006] B ALPHA CALL SPAMP OR SPRINKLE ASAP406-5838 2001-09-11 10:31:03 Skytel [005344006] B ALPHA UD REPORTS ANONYMOUS CALL TO JOC REPORTING ANGEL IS TARGET 2001-09-11 10:37:01 Skytel [005344006] B ALPHA PLane 5 miles out from cro 2001-09-11 10:37:03 Skytel [005344006] B ALPHA wn following potomac staying under radar joc 2001-09-11 10:40:46 Skytel [005344006] B ALPHA call joc asap for call waiting 2001-09-11 10:53:46 Skytel [005344006] B ALPHA|(no subject)|All admin staff relocated to 1111 18th and accounted for. I’m here and await any instructions. Shawn

    Sounds official. Twinkle and Turq[uoise] apparently secret service codenames for Bush’s daughters. No idea about ‘Spamp and Sprinkle’ or ‘Angel’, but sounds like other codenames for people and place. Same number receives other messages about suspect planes.

    keanobeano 5 points6 points7 points 1 hour ago[-]

    ANGEL = Air Force One

    repsuc 4 points5 points6 points 1 hour ago[-]

    US secret service without a doubt. You would think they would all have encrypted pagers.

  24. What does the one that says

    “It’s harvest time in the garden. Satisfy your hunger. The hidden world is fantastic. Astro”

    mean? It seems to be repeated throughout the day. Just looking through, I have found it at 13:10:33 and 20:05:33


    1. #40 – that is an automated astrology send-out (I believe most of them originated from Yahoo, as well – denoted by the ‘Y!’ at the start of the message). Previous the the bit you copied was most likely the name of a star sign (I saw many of these for Leo in the texts). The biggest clue is at the end:

      cross reference some more and you will see what I mean.

  25. This is a total violation of the privacy of those ( individuals (identifiable by phone number or email address), who were sharing personal moments with feared-deceased or soon-to-be deceased loved ones. At the same, this archive is unprecedented, important and awesome. Boing boing’s a big old hypocrite for encouraging this invasion of privacy; and boing boing is to be commended for recognizing this important collection.

    There’s no contradiction there; life is sometimes abstract and complicated like that.

  26. Is this the exception to the rule? In general, we fight for privacy, but in this case our voyeuristic urges overcome us. But this is faceless data. Like a picture from space. One could argue that such and such a pixel actually betrays their activities at such and such a point in time. But an individual’s privacy is only lost here if they stand up and say “That was me”. Does that really constitute a breach of privacy? If their cellphone or pager numbers were released with the message, then it would be a different matter, I guess. (did pagers have numbers? I was too young to ever really see those things in action. Except in the hospital.)

    If we don’t know and have no means of ever knowing who sent a given message, we haven’t broken their privacy. Its like knowing that someone on the internet has a password “orange1”. In fact, my anonymous alternate email address uses that password. I don’t feel that its privacy has been weakened in any way, because none of you know or could ever find out what the address is…

  27. I agree, I’m also surprised BB is spreading this instead of criticising it. It is extremely interesting and moving to read those pages, making the transcript public has great value- but it is also a breach of privacy. Like #43 said, there are phone numbers and names in there.

    BB usually fights against such things, I don’t see why this one gets a free pass.

    On the data itself, it reads almost like a scripted, terrifying introduction to an apocalyptic blockbuster. Scary, very scary, even more so when we realise it wasn’t an apocalypse, it was ‘just’ two buildings falling.

  28. And every few minutes you find a “THIS IS A TEST PERIODIC PAGE SEQUENTIAL NUMBER”. If that person had known that his test on that day would be included in a publication like this…

  29. Generally, for any set of “confidential” information, it is usually less bad for everyone to have access to it, than to have only a small group of selected people having access to it.

    Someone has gone to the trouble of collecting all this stuff. It already exists. Whether wikileaks publishes it and makes it available to the whole world or not, we must remember that even before that, some people already have access to your confidential/private messages. They didn’t just collect this stuff for that one day. It’s gone on for years, and is still going on.

    If you didn’t want strangers looking at your private messages, it is too late. It was too late the moment you sent it. Even yesterday, before wikileaks published it, other people were already looking at that stuff. There were fewer of them. You just didn’t think about it. As they say, ignorance is bliss.

  30. Daniel @ 47 –

    Just because you CAN do something doesn’t mean it has nothing but positive consequences, and that anyone upset by it is just a whiner. There is such a thing as compassion, and you’re severely deficient.

  31. Wow, I am surprised by the fact that this much/type of info has been collected. It certainly has been analyzed and will continue to be. Someone is watching out there and is not just google anymore.

  32. Someone was watching and collecting long before Larry Page and Sergey Brin were a twinkle in their moms eye.

    This needs to be shared and needs to be saved. If nothing more than to use to offset those who are already trying to minimize and alter this events historical record.

  33. Doesn’t this essentially represent sousveillance? The problem with lacking privacy is usually that it’s single-sided.

    This is a direct dump of pager messages (some encrypted, some not, some private citizens, some government employees) from a single area, from a single day eight years ago. What is important (imo) is not that we have access to this info now — after all, it’s been eight years — but that 1) all this was being logged (including the stuff that SHOULD be encrypted) prior to the attack (which was ostensibly the push behind the whole movement), and 2) that it took eight years for this to become leaked.

  34. Basically, one can hack-up a pager to a computer, and log all of the messages, since they’re not encrypted. Since they’re only 1-way, they’re broadcasted everywhere, not just through the nearest tower.

    They just happened to be in the right place at the right time with their loggers.

    My guess is that they waited 8 years to release this, because that’s how long it took for this legacy junk to become pointless to listen to. Who knows how much they’ve managed to log and analyze in the past 8+ years, getting inside info on stock deals and .gov infos.

  35. If you want to know where these intercepts came from research Verint and Comverse. The rabbit hole goes deep, very deep.

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