BY Silkie Carlo

Under surveillance: journalists urged to guard their data

The two most important principles for great journalism go hand in hand: first, to hold power to account, and second, to protect sources.

However, both principles are becoming increasingly challenging in light of the UK government’s attack on Freedom of Information and the expansive surveillance powers laid out in the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill.

If the UK Home Office has its way, bulk collection of metadata and content, collation of ‘bulk personal datasets’ (including innocent people’s political opinions, medical conditions, ethnicity, sexuality) and even bulk hacking, will be exercised under the new legislation. This is despite the extreme breaches of human rights law and basic democratic principles.

Journalistic principles are more important than ever if the draft bill becomes law in the United Kingdom. Equally important is for journalists to offer real source protection and adopt good information security practices.

It is thanks to great journalism, and excellent information security, that we can even have an informed debate about the surveillance state today. I’m referring, of course, to the courageous work of Glenn Greenwald and other journalists. It was their reporting on thousands of classified documents from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden – jigsaw pieces put together over the past two and a half years – that formed an unrecognisable and frankly dystopian picture of the Western democracies we thought we knew.

Whistleblowing and journalism has forced UK intelligence agencies and government to present comprehensive legislation to parliament in form of the draft bill to clearly define the powers that have been, and currently are, exercised with dubious legality. Few expected the worst of Snowden’s revelations to be proliferated and even extended, but they have been.

The UK government made a great deal of ‘journalist protections’ in the draft bill. I spent considerable time looking for them in the 300-page document. There aren’t any. There is a draft code of practice accompanying the bill, which recommends that police and spies have ‘consideration’ when gathering data on, or intercepting, journalist-source communications. But the bill gives police and intelligence agencies the power to spy on, intercept and even hack journalists’ communications. Since when is ‘consideration’ an effective safeguard to protect a critical pillar of a free society – a free press?

Journalists rarely know when they are being spied on. Authorities need not declare their target’s job; there is no obligation to inform those wrongfully spied on; and intercept evidence is banned from the courts. Despite the near impossibility of finding out you’ve been the target of surveillance, there are increasing examples of unjustified surveillance of journalists and their sources.

Journalists who want to be able to offer source protection; who want to do serious investigative work; who want to hold power to account, must adopt information security practices. Information security is source protection in the digital age, and journalists who show an awareness, willingness and ability to adopt digital security behaviours will attract valuable sources and stories.

My top tips for journalists on protecting their data:

  • Don’t offer source protection unless you are confident you can provide it. It is important to give potential sources an honest and informed evaluation of the protection you can provide them and the safety of your communications. Their livelihoods, and in some countries their lives, could be at stake.
  • Information you need to understand the risks and defend against them is widely available, including this free handbook from the Centre for Investigative Journalism.
  • Use encryption to securely exchange emails and to safely share important source files. Encryption wraps communications in impenetrable code, so that the content is only accessible to the intended recipient/s. It is one of the very best ways we have of securing modern communications and technologies.
  • Using the Centre for Investigative Journalism handbook you can learn some simple but highly effective ways to encrypt your emails, use encrypted instant messaging and store or exchange encrypted files.

Silkie Carlo is a policy officer on surveillance at Liberty, the co-author of Information Security for Journalists and a former journalist.

Watch: How do you know if you've been hacked? 

Image by AFP