Are you carrying protection?

Investigative journalist Chris Masters looks back over decades of source protection for some tips on how to avoid surveillance. Cartoon by Phil Somerville.

It is hard to pretend to be objective about the importance of privacy issues when we spend much of our professional lives probing into the affairs of others. And as ever in this nascent digital age, there is difficulty in navigating an approach when we still can’t see the horizon.

For all that, the opportunities outweigh the threats. The digital era delivers extraordinary advances to investigative journalism. Data which once took weeks to retrieve can now be accessed in minutes. A lightweight computer containing a mass of research is much easier to cart around and access than a battered and bulging reporter’s briefcase.

We can more quickly know our subjects – but equally, so too can they more expeditiously know us. They can better track our manoeuvres and, if so inclined, hack into that treasure trove of research.

Most of my career is positioned in the pre-digital-cum-paperless-office age, when we stooped like troglodytes under the weight of the haul from our labours. Many a bad back resulted from lugging around all that material.

But the experience also forced on us certain operating methodologies, some of which might be worth reviving.

Although we were subject to legal and illegal electronic interception, we developed our tradecraft in the main because of the anticipation of litigation. The legal discovery process still means the plaintiff can access all files pertaining to our work – notebooks, diaries, tape recordings, travel records and expense reconciliations.

I found the ideal answer was not the classic après publication bonfire in the backyard of all records, because the files were also crucial to defending my own case.

The better plan was to ensure from the beginning that information was managed in a manner that kept faith with sources. When processing unattributable intelligence we took care to code and organise key information without identifying references such as phone numbers. My notebooks became littered with Post-it Notes, which could be stripped out and consigned to the bonfire at the end of an assignment.

While reporters now have an expanded arsenal of investigative tools, the telephone remains the main, and sadly often the sole, device employed.

I don’t know how many times I got up from the table, after sharing a meal with my family, to belt off in the direction of a public telephone. When I finally found one that worked I would make the call to a source, then also at home, praying the line would not be engaged. The process was even more tedious, considering the obligation to find a new phone booth every time. This was less because of any likelihood the call would be intercepted, and more to avoid a telltale pattern appearing, if and when the source’s call records were tracked.

Enforcement and revenue collection agencies can access call records without warrant so the case for erasing data footprints remains strong. And revelations of governments, including our own, engaging in mass surveillance programs further advance the case for upgrading our own information-gathering protocols.

Alternative SIM cards and online phone accounts will make the tracing process more difficult, but there are costs and complications. It is easier often to borrow a phone or pay a cabbie for the quick use of their mobile. And phoning the source at work should not be overlooked. It might actually allay suspicion considering the legitimate cause to make enquiries and the channelling of the call through a switchboard.

Even better – try to meet face to face. You learn more, often discovering what is least expected. You make better judgments about whether or not you are being conned. You enable colour and context, and the content of discussion is generally more deniable. You could have always been talking about the football.

Most of all, we should not get carried away by the idea that the National Security Agency or the Australian Signals Directorate is tracking our every move. We are journalists, not spies. We work for the public. We are not their enemies.

It takes approximately 30 man-hours to process every hour of intercepted conversation. Basic mental arithmetic should indicate to us whether or not we are that important.

An occupational hazard of investigative journalism is the wearying paranoia we confront in the odd witness. We learn to be careful of the ones who are convinced they are being followed around by spy satellites. Their imaginings betray a trace of conceit, which we hope will not surface in our own.

Even in an age where we would be mugs to think electronic records are secure, that ever-tempting proposition that the storyteller has become the story is to be sternly resisted.

The most important faculty in the reporter’s repertoire is judgment. Reporters should be the last to allow this critical faculty to become another victim of the vortex of cyberspace.


Chris Masters is an award-winning author and journalist who worked for 25 years at the ABC’s Four Corners

Phil Somerville is a Sydney-based freelance cartoonist who contributes to publications including The Sydney Morning Herald and The Sun-Herald