by Lili Ninova
In June 2013, former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden disclosed numerous top-secret documents about the massive collection of online data, initiating an international debate about this violation of human rights of millions of citizens, and not just American ones. Mass surveillance is disturbing in terms of freedom, rights and democracy, but online monitoring represents a particular danger to an independent press. After this scandal, many people now wonder about the future of journalism in the US. We have decided to dig deeper and interview the sources so we can understand better the situation in the post-Snowden era. We are joined by Frank Smyth, founder and executive director of Global Journalist Security and senior advisor for the Committee to Protect Journalists; Trevor Timm, co-founder and executive director of Freedom of the Press Foundation, where Edward Snowden has been a member since February 2014; and Ryan Gallagher, a journalist for The Guardian UK and the online magazine « The Intercept », which Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, the journalists who shared Snowden’s story with the world, created with fellow journalist Jeremy Scahill last year.
Massive Surveillance: « Old news with new tools »
Spying on journalists and their sources is not a new phenomenon. However, after Snowden’s revelations, people are now aware that surveillance represents a real danger. It may be « old news », but this time « new tools » are in the picture. These technical methods represent a great risk to the effectiveness of an independent press. Never before have intelligence agencies been equipped with such sophisticated technology. In an age where most communication is done online, the NSA’s massive databases can generate full profiles on journalists’ activities, as well as of their sources. Every day, the US government gathers billions of data points on American citizens and foreigners alike via the Internet and mobile phones.
This presents a great threat to the press, since the American government is now capable of knowing very quickly with whom journalists are communicating.
At the end of 2013, the NSA built its Utah Data Center. Sprawled on a 1.5-million-square-foot campus, the centre gathers information from every corner of the world. It is known as the NSA’s “cloud” and has a storage capacity between 3 and 13 exabytes. NSA whistleblower William Binney has said that the facility may even be able to store up to 1 zettabyte, or 1’024 exabytes. Meanwhile, the quantity of information produced throughout all of human history up to the present equals around 5 exabytes.
Storing that much data is an excellent way to train artificial intelligence systems to gather important information. Binney thinks that the NSA’s fundamental purpose is to reach total predictability. “They want to get to a point where they can be doing intentions and capabilities of potential threats,” he explains. If that happens, it will be almost impossible for journalists to preserve the confidentiality of their sources.
These concerns are compounded by the fact that President Obama’s 2008 campaign promises of a transparent government have proved elusive. His administration has already used he 1917 Espionage Act to prosecute whistleblowers seven times — more than twice as much as every other US president combined.
Originally created during World War I, the Espionage Act was designed to protect the US against “the insidious methods of internal hostile activities.”
Nevertheless, today the US government is using it to ruin the lives of whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, who were sharing the truth about the US government’s actions. We observe today in the US a climate where people who try to inform the public are taking risk being considered spies. This tendency goes against the administration’s earlier promises of a transparent government. Ryan Gallagher, a journalist for « The Guardian » and « The Intercept », affirms that the situation in the US is very unfavorable for sources.
“The climate in the US is particularly hostile for whistleblowers right now”, he explains. “It’s well known that the Obama administration has prosecuted more people under the Espionage Act for leaking information to journalists than any other administration in history”.
The US is not the only country to go after journalists’ sources. Last year, Great Britain prosecuted many press agencies and their executives, considered as legal threat because of their revelations questioning the legitimacy of the British government. “The Guardian” was obliged to destroy all its hard disks that contained encrypted data handed over by Snowden if it wanted to escape a legal prosecution. At the same time, British security officials detained David Miranda, Glenn Greenwald’s partner, at Heathrow Airport for nine hours without the right to a legal representative. These examples show the obstacles to a free press, not only in the US but around the world. They are becoming more aggressive, sophisticated and dangerous.
Current threats to journalists and sources in the US
Journalists who reveal US government secrets and work with whistleblowers are the first to be affected by NSA surveillance, but they are not the only targets.
More and more journalists agree that the storage and collection of personal data jeopardizes the work of journalists in general. Not only is the government’s massive surveillance affecting what people say online, but it is also preventing access to information. By censoring journalism, NSA and GCHQ surveillance violate the principles of democracy and obstruct the right of the public to be informed. So how does surveillance jeopardize journalism in US?
To begin with, it encourages reporters to self-censor. Since the Snowden revelations, journalists have grown more careful in their choice of topics, worrying about potential surveillance by the government. Ryan Gallagher speaks of a “chilling effect” on the practice of journalism.
“I can only speak personally. It doesn’t really influence my own research topics, as surveillance is the particular area that I am actually interested in investigating (and have been since well before Snowden)”, Gallagher says. “But I know from having spoken to colleagues that mass surveillance does have a kind of chilling effect, especially in the national security field. I can imagine that some journalists may be dissuaded from trying to cover certain subjects for fear of being monitored in some way”.
Self-censorship is not the only threat to follow from mass surveillance. It also jeopardizes the confidential conversations between journalists and their sources. Reporters can no longer guarantee sources’ protection. That leaves many sources afraid of being revealed and prosecuted. Most alarming is the simplicity with which authorities can operate. They no longer need to oblige journalists to testify against their sources; they can just use digital data to condemn the accused.
Confidential meetings with sources are a fundamental part of journalism. These so-called “background” or “off the record” discussions are not an exceptional practice. An independent press needs to cover important stories by protecting its sources. If it can’t guarantee their confidentiality then it cannot operate.
Trevor Timm, co-founder and executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, says that sources are now afraid to address themselves to journalists: “Often times, the sources are afraid to talk to journalists given they know they might be being watching. This creates a “chilling effect” that stifles investigative journalism and hurts the public’s right to know”.
His foundation is fighting precisely to defend and finance organisations and independent journalists who reveal government corruption and support transparency. The NGO also works to reinforce and affirm the rights of journalist guaranteed under the First Amendment of the US Constitution.
In February, Freedom of the Press Foundation welcomed its latest board member — Edward Snowden himself.
Another NGO in the US that defends journalists by monitoring attacks against the press is the the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Frank Smyth, a senior advisor at CPJ, describes it as a monitoring organisation that focuses on violations against freedom of the press and which is there for journalists operating in print, broadcast or online. The NGO has even released a report regarding the Obama administration’s abuses against the press.
“CPJ just did a very lengthy report written by the former executive editor, I believe of the Washington Post, that looked at the Obama administration’s relationship with the press, which has been much more antagonistic than I think most people realize. So I think CPJ and a lot of those were investigations that involved, for example, looking at the phone records of AP reporters to try and determine their sources. So CPJ helped to bring this information to light to make journalists in those countries and other countries aware of the danger of leaving electronic footprints between themselves and sources”, explains Frank.
The existence organizations like Freedom of the Press Foundation has never been so essential to defend basic press freedoms. However, these organisations primarily offer legal protections to American journalists and their sources.
As for foreign reporters who write about the US, they are easy victims of NSA surveillance. As foreigners working abroad, these journalists are not protected by the US constitution, and the NSA can chase their sources with impunity. This is why press The Guardian UK has established a partnership with the New York Times, since it is an American entity protected by the American constitution, free from the shackles of targeted NSA surveillance.
Encryption tools: the best solution to protect yourself from surveillance?
The Snowden affair has brought attention to the dangers of data storage. It has also served as a wakeup call for journalists, making them rethink their strategy in terms of source protection and procedures of investigative journalism. Reporters now know that they have to adopt carefully planned techniques in order to avoid government surveillance. One of the ways to do this is with encryption tools. The ultimate objective is that not only journalists use these tools, but also their sources. At this moment, many encryption and privacy tools are available free of charge: PGP, Tor and, since October 2013, SecureDrop, introduced by the Freedom of the Press Foundation. In particular, more and more media outlets are using SecureDrop, including The Intercept and ProPublica. Originally developed by computer scientist and internet activist Aaron Swartz, SecureDrop combines many security tools like PGP, Tor and the operating system Tails with other technology that offers secure communications between journalists and potential sources.
“The advantage of SecureDrop is that it leverages US legal protections to make it very hard for the government to subpoena, and also minimizes the digital trail of information that has gotten so many sources in trouble in the past”, explains Timm.
However, although encryption tools allow journalists to better protect their sources, they also come with disadvantages. They remain difficult to use because of the particular set of skills needed for their management. This is one of the main challenges the SecureDrop developers are working on at present.
These tools also have a “revealing” effect in themselves, given that encrypted communication attracts the NSA’s attention because of suspicion about hiding information. For Gallagher and Timm, the only way to stop this effect is to make using encryption and privacy tools a common practice. If all journalists and their sources use encryption tools, prosecutions against people who communicate in such a secure way will be less frequent.
For his part, Smyth does not believe in the systematic use of encryption tools and thinks that it’s better to establish a combination of ways to guarantee the privacy and confidentiality of the sources.
“There are some people who say that everyone should use encryption all the time. I don’t think that’s going to happen in our lifetime. I don’t subscribe to that belief because I don’t think it’s realistic”, Smyth says.
“In a lot of places we’re using encryption, especially places like Colombia or Iran or rather Syria, Egypt, Venezuela, right. You’re using encryption, you might be attracting attention to yourself, including in the USA. So another way to do it would be to find ways to ping people, to communicate with people through various ways, so even if the people who are monitoring and the agencies that are monitoring are going to have trouble putting all the pieces together”, he explains.
The other important method for Frank is to know your threat model as an investigative reporter, and through this model, to establish the proper strategies to protect your sources. The journalists who have the NSA as a threat model, for example, won’t adopt the same strategies as those who have the government of China as their threat model.
The NSA reform proposal: a potential hope to protect sources and journalists?
In order to improve his administration’s image, President Obama is now trying to pass reforms that restrict what data the NSA can collect and hold on US citizens. For example, US telephone metadata records will remain in the hands of the telephone companies unless requested by the NSA under specific circumstances, subject to approval.
While this proposal is currently the subject of debate in the media and Congress, the three journalists interviewed here remain skeptical about it.
Ryan Gallagher does not see how this reform could improve the situation and thinks that NSA may even try to harden their actions against journalists in the US.
“At some point in the future, maybe the government will seek to reform whistleblower laws so that private contractors, not just government employees, will be protected if they come forward. But other than that, I can’t imagine much will come out of this that is directly aimed at helping protect sources and journalists”, he says. “In fact, I believe there is some kind of ‘media leaks’ legislation on the horizon in the US that will actually attempt to stifle journalists’ ability to report on leaks as opposed to protecting it”. (Former NSA director Keith Alexander also mentioned this recently.)
Smyth is also very skeptical in terms of improving the conditions for US journalists.
“I wouldn’t expect it to contribute to anything. I wouldn’t trust the NSA. And the NSA has a minimal amount of oversight, and for journalists they could always find reasons to go after people who they believe are communicating with suspected individuals. And US agencies consider any classified information, very broadly defined, to be the equivalents of contraband. So that’s enough to warrant an investigation. So for journalists, I don’t think these reforms, even if they go through, which, at the degree they go through will provide any kind of real buffer from surveillance”.
Finally, Timm doesn’t believe that the reforms President Obama has proposed will change anything and would prefer that the Obama administration repealed the Espionage Act, though he doesn’t see how this could happen.
In the end, the future of American journalism remains murky. The NSA’s capacities cast a significant shadow over the press’s freedom and effectiveness. The technological progress itself will allow other governments to practice the same type of surveillance without limits. The only hope that’s left to preserve transparency and protect the independent press in the US is to continue to inform the public and to keep its attention on this threat, which risks growing on an international scale.
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