United we stand, and encrypt

Josh Stearns believes co-operation and solidarity among international journalists is as important as encryption when it comes to protecting our investigative work. Artwork by Chris Kelly.

At the end of October, as thousands of activists gathered in Washington, DC for the largest US rally against domestic spying, the director of the National Security Agency (NSA) sent a message to journalists reporting on surveillance and whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations. “I think it’s wrong that newspaper reporters have all these documents […] and are selling them and giving them out,” General Keith Alexander told a Department of Defense blog. “We ought to come up with a way of stopping it.”

This statement mirrored comments from UK authorities who told Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger: “You’ve had your debate. There’s no need to write any more.”

That message came just weeks before agents from the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) intelligence agency came to the Guardian office and forced staff to destroy computers and hard drives that contained documents leaked by Snowden.

Snowden’s leaks have exposed a largely secret and unaccountable surveillance state, ignited a new era of watchdog reporting on national security issues, and sparked protests in the streets. Revelations about these surveillance programs have also highlighted an array of new threats and challenges to press freedom and basic news gathering around the globe. We now know that all our communications are being collected, and increasingly used against us and our sources.

Indeed, a group of scholars, journalists and researchers at Columbia University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently argued that “the tremendous power of internet-era monitoring raises the most serious kinds of questions about freedom, power and democracy” and “presents a grave threat to the effectiveness of an independent press.”

And yet the NSA is just one of a web of agencies in the US and around the globe that are collecting data on where we are, who we talk with, and what we do online. In the US, both the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security have come under scrutiny for the search and seizure of journalists’ data and communications. And worldwide, we’ve seen how the “Five Eyes Alliance” of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States share vast amounts of data and partner on electronic eavesdropping across borders.

“Just as the surveillance state is an international actor – not one government, but many working together – and just as the surveillance net stretches worldwide because the communications network does too,” wrote NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, “the struggle to report on the secret system’s overreach is global, as well. It’s the collect-it-all coalition against an expanded fourth estate, worldwide.”

Nothing exemplifies this expanded fourth estate quite as much as the international network of journalists at the core of the reporting on the Snowden documents: Laura Poitras in Berlin, Glenn Greenwald in Rio de Janeiro, Barton Gellman in Washington, DC and the editors and reporters at The Guardian in New York and London. At a recent journalism conference, Janine Gibson, the editor of The Guardian’s US site, discussed the impact this has had on how reporters do their job.

“You have to put people on planes and move them around the world,” she explained, “because you can’t talk on the phone or email.”

All of this has sparked an increased emphasis on and interest in digital security for journalists. Journalism schools and conferences are offering workshops, and organisations like the Freedom of the Press Foundation are releasing new encryption tools for newsrooms and publishing guides for secure communications. These are all good and long overdue developments.

Today, the relationship between journalists and sources demands a working knowledge of basic encryption and security practices. This was evident in the case of British journalist and film-maker Sean McAllister. Syrian security agents captured McAllister and searched his electronics, revealing his contacts with sensitive sources within the rebel community. Some have even suggested that insecure satellite phones allowed Syrian authorities to locate and target journalist Marie Colvin, who was killed in a rocket strike in Homs in February 2012.

When it comes to digital security, no-one can do it alone. Both the sender and receiver of an encrypted message must know how to use the encryption software. Given the expansion of mass surveillance and the new threats facing journalists in the digital age, it’s not enough to have a few passionate journalism nerds preaching the benefits of encryption. Even if you don’t think you need in-depth digital security for the stories you work on, your lack of digital hygiene could open the door to a hacker who wants to attack or spy on your colleagues.

If we want to build more secure newsrooms and safer networks, we need a broad-based effort around encryption and information security, but we also need journalists to stand together across borders, not just as an industry, but as a community pushing back against government surveillance.

“Many people think journalist security involves the use of encrypted files and counter-surveillance techniques – and those practices do have their place,” wrote the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Frank Smyth. “But security is really a way of thinking, a way of approaching your work. And fostering professional solidarity is crucial to that approach.”

This solidarity is crucial because even when we’re doing everything right, even when we encrypt our hard drives, even when we fly people across oceans to meet face to face, threats persist. In August, UK authorities detained Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, as he was flying back to their home in Brazil. Miranda was travelling on behalf of The Guardian, carrying copies of leaked documents back and forth between Greenwald and Laura Poitras. British authorities detained him for nine hours under a UK terrorism law, questioning him without a lawyer and seizing his electronics.

The Columbia Journalism Review called the Miranda detention a “DEFCON 2 journalism event” – a reference to the code used when the US is one step away from nuclear war. In this case, the journalistic equivalent of nuclear war may not be that far off.

In October, Prime Minister David Cameron suggested that he was ready to pursue legal action against newspapers in the UK that reported on the Snowden documents. Recently filed court documents reveal that the UK is arguing David Miranda is guilty of terrorism and espionage for his work with The Guardian. This is chilling for press freedom in the UK and around the world, where repressive regimes have often used terrorism charges to suppress journalism.

The Guardian’s response to its government’s pressure speaks volumes about the connection between solidarity and security. In the face of legal threats, The Guardian has continued reporting on mass surveillance, but it has done so in part by forging partnerships with The New York Times and ProPublica.

A Guardian spokeswoman told BuzzFeed: “In a climate of intense pressure from the UK government, the Guardian decided to bring in a US partner to work on the GCHQ documents.”

This partnership is more than a simple editorial collaboration; it’s a journalistic act of civil disobedience designed to serve the public.

The internet and other forms of digital technology have always been a double-edged sword, expanding freedom of speech, expression and the press while also enabling surveillance. Similarly, technology has given journalists new tools to cover their communities, connect with their sources and collaborate on their reporting – but it has also helped empower government institutions that oppose journalism, transparency, and accountability.

Challenging these institutions, and defending our right to gather and disseminate news, will increasingly call us into new kinds of collaborations – and demand new networks of solidarity across the globe.


Josh Stearns is the journalism and public media campaign director at FreePress.net and a founding board member of the Freedom of the Press Foundation.

This is adapted from a blog post, “Solidarity in the face of surveillance”, that first appeared on the website of the Committee to Protect Journalists

Chris Kelly is a cartoonist and caricaturist: facebook.com/AustralianPrimeMinisterCaricatures