The Mysterious World of "Secret Sites"
Clairvoyant infodumps target seemingly random people.
Somewhere in a Los Angeles apartment, a 21-year-old woman is interrupted in the midst of conversation by the ping of her smartphone’s notification system. She politely excuses herself from her party, buzzing with excitement over what she expects to see on her device—and there it is: an otherwise unidentifiable is.gd-shortened link. She races home to her laptop, clicks open her browser and reads. She is one of the lucky few and she knows it. She is on the Secret Site Listserv. She is, as they call themselves, a “Siter”.
This young lady (we’ll call her Amber), who spoke to Dispatches on condition of anonymity, received her first Secret Site email last November. The introduction to the listserv was short and sweet: “You, Amber [last name], are one of the lucky few identified as important enough to receive an invitation to discover things that will be popular tomorrow. The art, culture, politics, science, and technology found in these links is mostly unknown today, but will soon explode onto the scene. You are among those privileged to be the first to know.”
The links to the Secret Sites are actually links to entries on a site called Quick Forget, a favorite site for sharers of clandestine information. The links from Quick Forget disappear forever after they’re viewed, and the pages themselves appear to be on randomly generated IP Addresses. These pages all look the same: Clean, gray text on a dark blue background, each with a bold, unhelpful title: Dump, Repository, Heap, Stuff, etc.
Amber recounts her first experience with the Secret Sites: “I was sure this was some kind of prank or marketing pitch or something, but of course I couldn’t help myself. The creepy part was the email was right—all the stuff I saw on the site was stuff I’d never heard of, but within, like, a month, I saw all of it on the news or on Twitter or Facebook,” she told us.
At the beginning, Amber recalls, she was worried about sharing the information from the secret sites—she was afraid that if the Sender (Siters tend to capitalize “Sender”) found out that she was spilling information, she would be cut off from the listserv.
“I found a forum one time, in the comments section of an article I saw about the Site, just for Siters. I went on and found out there were dozens of us. It freaked me out. All I could think was ‘What if the Sender finds this, you guys?’ A couple of weeks later the forum had been taken down, and I was just glad I never posted on it. I don’t want to lose my connection.”
The desire to share, however, beat out her initial fears, and she’s begun posting content from the Site on her Twitter feed. She says she has no idea why the Sender chose her specifically: “I’m just a normal college student. There’s nothing interesting about me, and I only have, like, 200 Twitter followers. I’ve never been famous or even really that popular.”
The Site information she shares, however, has made a few waves. Amber tells the story of when one of her posts was retweeted by a major political commentator: “So, I posted a Reuters story about the French Parliament talking about lifting the burqa ban. The Site said that the ban would be lifted before the end of the month, so that’s what I posted. And this guy, [name redacted], who I later found out was pretty famous, RTed me and said something like ‘Wishful thinking, friend.’ And then, two weeks later they voted and the ban was over.”
Dispatches has contacted dozens of leads in the pursuit of this story, and all of them except Amber have led down the same two paths: the supposed Siters we’ve contacted turned out to be frauds or dupes, or real Siters we’ve reached out to have been flatly unwilling to talk to the media. And they all have the same reason: The Sender.
Nobody knows who the Sender could be, and if curious Siters have any clues, they aren’t sharing them with anyone. A recent Wired post suggests a few likely suspects: SEO companies experimenting with secret branding, political parties, internet entrepreneurs, or even governmental organizations. But no one has a solid lead.
“I have no clue,” said Amber when we asked her, “but whoever it is is pretty damned smart.”