Two years ago, Vice magazine found itself at the center of a media firestorm when it neglected to scrub location-based metadata from a photo accompanying an article about the fugitive millionaire John McAfee.
That metadata, attached to a photograph of McAfee and former Vice editor Rocco Castoro, revealed the location of the Guatemalan resort where McAfee had been hiding after being named a "person of interest" in the murder of an American expatriate in neighboring Belize, and eventually led to his arrest.
In the immediate aftermath of the incident, which raised questions about the outlet's journalistic responsibility, Vice released a statement pledging to ascertain how exactly the metadata had been included, and to release film taken by the photographer Robert King — who had accompanied Castoro to Guatemala.
Despite many media outlets' obvious glee in damning us immediately, VICE has decided to wait and talk to the people on our team who were on the ground and who can therefore tell us what actually went down in an attempt to refrain from propagating the same rumors, myths, and madness that this story has consisted of from the start. When that is done we will follow up with not only a comprehensive statement (and apology, if one is necessary), but also our footage, which we will show to the world.
Our team has just returned home to debrief and deliver said footage. We have always been transparent in our filmmaking and will continue that practice—this will be no exception. If we fucked up, you can be sure it will be in the film, which we will show everyone, everywhere—warts and all. The story as a whole has engaged people around the world precisely because it is so freaky, and even if it shows that we made mistakes on the ground during a very hectic and dangerous week of reporting on McAfee's mistakes, we are sure it's going to make one hell of a documentary.
But Vice never released the video, nor for that matter, any follow-up on the damaging snafu.
Yesterday, King uploaded a video to his YouTube page from Dec. 3, 2012, capturing the panicked moments as he, McAfee, and Castoro realize that their location has been compromised.
It sheds new light on the incident, and seems to absolve both Castoro and King of blame for the release of the metadata.
"We were never allowed to tell our side of the story," King told BuzzFeed News, in a phone interview from Berlin. "It always followed me around — the geodata, that I leaked the fucking geodata." King, who has been a conflict photographer for more than 20 years, said the fact that Vice never clarified why the metadata was attached to the photograph has put him in danger on subsequent assignments.
"Literally in Syria, I'm being asked, Did I leak the geodata?" Indeed, after his most recent trip to Syria, in May 2014 King said he was told by his fixer that he was banned from returning. "I was placed on the list reserved for journalists who have no honor," he told BuzzFeed News in an email. "In the Arab world, honor, honesty and integrity is what keeps foreign correspondents alive."
King insisted he had nothing to do with the uploading of geodata to the Vice website. He said that he took the snapshot on Castoro's iPhone and immediately warned both Castoro and McAfee that the photo contained geodata. He said he was aware of the hazards of metadata and cellular data because of his previous experience in war zones. "I always took my battery out of my cell phone because of security in Syria," King said.
Castoro seems to have heeded King's warning.
In the video, which focuses on a conversation between King and McAfee, Castoro can be seen and heard in the background talking on a cell phone. "I said very specifically to take a screenshot of the photo," Castoro says, "so the...data does not fucking show up, in caps."
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Castoro said that he was talking to an employee of Vice whom he would not identify because the person still works there.
So if, as the video suggests, both King and Castoro warned Vice about the metadata attached to the iPhone image, who at Vice screwed up? And why didn't Vice ever come forward with that information?
Later in the video, McAfee, now in the backseat of a car, has a phone conversation with someone named "Jonathan."
Castoro told BuzzFeed News that "Jonathan" was an online editor of Vice at the time. A LinkedIn search revealed Jonathan Smith, the current deputy editor of Vice, as the online editor of Vice at the time, in charge of "day-to-day editorial content and operations."
In an email, King said that "I...was offered an apology or an excuse for releasing the meta data by an individual named Jonathan Smith."
McAfee did not respond to an email request to confirm the identity of "Jonathan."
And why didn't Vice ever follow-up on its initial statement? Castoro said he made several inquiries and, "I was told that I didn't have a 'silver bullet.'" I could not tell you anything else about what that means. I stopped asking questions."
Castoro announced this week that he had resigned as editor of Vice, but King insisted to BuzzFeed News that the timing of the video upload had nothing to do with Castoro's depature.
"I've been trying to get this video out a long time and it was just circumstance."
Asked why the video had never been released by Vice, King said, "I don't want to say much more. I don't want to get sued."
Neither Vice nor Jonathan Smith responded to requests for comment.
Joe Bernstein is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Bernstein reports on and writes about the gaming industry and web culture.
Contact Joseph Bernstein at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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