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Free Expression, Government Surveillance

As Surveillance Reporters Become Targets, Journalism Pushes Back

As national security reporters undergo increasing scrutiny from the very agencies that are the subject of their work, journalists have started coalescing into major stakeholders in the push for surveillance reform.

We’ve see signs of the growing pressure that mass surveillance is putting on journalism, whether it’s the recent Human Rights Watch-ACLU report documenting ways in which eavesdropping and location-tracking technologies “chill” journalists or this week’s headlines on the FBI’s use of fake Associated Press articles to deliver location-tracking malware to a suspect. Even direct disruption isn’t out of bounds, as seen in the sophisticated remote attacks and data sabotage used to cripple a CBS News reporter’s work. Fortunately, journalists are waking up to the need to protect their work and sources from surveillance and pushing back with sophisticated defenses of their own.

Protecting Sources, Protecting Speech

Steve Coll, dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, believes that it is now incumbent on individual reporters and media groups to adopt strong security practices and technologies to protect their sources’ identities.

In a recent New Yorker essay entitled “How Edward Snowden Changed Journalism,” Coll understands Citizenfour as a lesson in source protection. An on-the-scene documentary of journalists’ first contact with Snowden, Citizenfour provides viewers with a run-through of the most trusted tools currently available for communicating anonymously (like Tails and SecureDrop) and the spy-school techniques (threat assessments, source verification, and identity “minimization” procedures) filmmaker Laura Poitras uses to protect her high-value source.

But Poitras’ lens also captures another lesson of post-9/11 journalism: Freedom from pervasive surveillance is fundamental to the editorial independence reporters need in order to operate as members of a free press. As Steve Coll observed, tools like encryption, “can, at a minimum, create time and space for independent journalistic decision-making about what to publish and why,” which is what Citizenfour characterizes as “breathing room” to develop information, ideas, and words before sharing them with the world.

Citizenfour also documents a broader shift towards journalists’ advocacy on behalf of legal reforms that would protect individuals from mass, suspicionless surveillance. Abroad, British newspapers and journalists are demanding increased transparency about Metropolitan Police data requests. In the U.S., the Reporters Committee and 24 media organizations requested an independent inquiry into how the NSA uses journalists’ data and communications. And last month, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called on the Obama Administration to issue orders against spying on journalists or hacking into their communications, subjecting them to excessive questioning or searches of their laptops and recording devices at border crossings, and compelling investigative reporters to testify against their sources.

CPJ’s “Right to Report” petition is gaining support across the media spectrum—from Glenn Greenwald and Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media, to the Associated Press, Bloomberg News, Arianna Huffington, and CNN International’s Christiane Amanpour, as well as civil society advocates including Amnesty International, Article 19, and CDT.

We’ve noted time and again that strong digital security is necessary to protect free speech on the Internet, and does not put its users “above the law.” As Snowden warns Poitras in their first encrypted exchange, digital security is not “bullet proof.” Reporters can be investigated and their communications subject to legal process if there is evidence that they committed a crime, such as wiretapping.

With strong security and professional practices, journalists will be in a better position to lobby for surveillance reforms and uphold our rights to digital autonomy and freedom of expression and thought. As they advocate for surveillance reform and develop and share available tools of “surveillance self-defense,” journalists can also become a valuable source for policy proposals and information on securing digital “breathing room” in a time of mass surveillance.

The “Right to Report” is the Right of Digital Autonomy for Us All

Pervasive monitoring of our communications devices, invasion of our unpublished exchanges or unfinished thoughts, and compelled disclosure of our private associations puts significant pressure on the “breathing room” we all need to engage in digital life. Expressive autonomy from constant oversight gives us the time and space to choose our words, build our relationships, and develop our reactions, our ideas, and ourselves.

Intimidation that chills journalists’ speech erodes the Internet’s wealth of public information and undermines the secure spaces we all need to think and deliberate. Spying and hacking on journalists burdens free expression and suppresses everyone’s right to receive information.

At CDT, we believe that the “Right to Report” belongs to us all. That’s why we work hard to embed human rights values like privacy and expression into core Internet and web standards, such as in our latest draft submission to the Internet Engineering Task Force describing the technical mechanisms used to block and degrade Internet traffic by censors around the world. It’s also why we signed on to the Committee to Project Journalists’ “Right to Report” petition, calling for stronger protections for journalists, sources, and freedom of expression on the Internet—and we hope you will too.