Surveillance forces journalists to think and act like spies

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
April 27, 2015

Once upon a time, a journalist never gave up a confidential source. When someone comes forward, anonymously, to inform the public, it's better to risk time incarcerated than give them up. This ethical responsibility was also a practical and professional necessity. If you promise anonymity, you're obliged to deliver. If you can't keep your word, who will trust you in the future? Sources go elsewhere and stories pass you by.

Grizzled correspondents might recall this time with nostalgia. For many young journalists, it's more like historical fiction--a time when reporters could choose not to give up a source, gruff editors chain-smoked cigars, and you could spot a press hack by the telltale notebook and card in the brim of a hat.

The experience of a new generation of news writers tells a different story. Whether you choose to yield a source's name is secondary. Can you even protect your source to begin with? Call records, email archives, phone tapping, cell-site location information, smart transit passes, roving bugs, and surveillance cameras--our world defaults to being watched. You can perhaps achieve privacy for a few fleeting moments, but, even then, only with a great deal of effort.

Yet this is journalism's brave new world. In the United States, the National Security Agency, otherwise known as the NSA, seeks to listen to every electronic communication sent or received. In the U.K., the Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, has succeeded in intercepting and storing every peep that passes over the wires. Commercial spy software FinFisher (also called FinSpy) monitors citizens in at least 20 other countries, according to a report by The Citizen Lab, a research group based at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto in Ontario, Canada. Global Information Society Watch's global report details the state of communications surveillance in plenty more. Even Canada's spy agency may be watching Canadians illegally, though the GISWatch report could not say so conclusively.

If a journalist can protect the identity of his or her sources at all, it's only with the application of incredible expertise and practice, along with expensive tools. Journalists now compete with spooks and spies, and the spooks have the home-field advantage.

Shadowy worlds of subterfuge and surveillance should not be a journalist's habitat. The time a journalist spends learning to play Spy-vs.-Spy could be better spent honing his or her craft. Every hour spent wrangling complex security tools could be an hour spent researching and writing. All the staff on a newsroom's security team could be writers and editors instead. Each geeky gizmo and air-gapped computer (a computer that is never connected to a network) could be another camera or microphone, or the cost could be spent on payroll. All the extra labor and logistics dedicated to evading espionage is a loss.

This poses sometimes-steep financial costs on newsrooms. If journalists and media organizations are to protect themselves, they must buy more tools and adopt practices that limit their efficiency. Robust security practices are complex and time-consuming, imposing logistical costs. The psychological toll of constant surveillance leads to exhaustion and burnout. Few journalists do their best work when they know that government thugs could break down the door at any moment--as they did at the home of independent New Zealand reporter Nicky Hager in October 2014, according to The Intercept.

Read the full post at The Committee to Protect Journalists website.