Solidarity in the face of surveillance

One way for journalists to build more secure newsrooms and safer networks would be for more of them to learn and practice digital hygiene and information security. But that’s not enough. We also need journalists to stand together across borders, not just as an industry, but as a community, against government surveillance.

The Obama administration, in its attempt to control government leaks, has issued subpoenas and conducted unprecedented surveillance of journalists, as CPJ documented in a report this week. But the United States is hardly the only democratic nation that has been trying to unveil reporters’ sources and other professional secrets.

In August, U.S. journalist Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, was detained by U.K. authorities at London’s Heathrow airport as he was flying back to their home in Brazil. Greenwald’s editor at the London-based Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, soon revealed that the British government had been trying for months to stop the Guardian from reporting on mass surveillance programs revealed by former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, threatening unspecified action. Finally, two agents from the U.K. Government Communications Headquarters, a British intelligence agency, oversaw the physical destruction of computer hard drives in the basement of the Guardian‘s London offices.

The Guardian continued reporting, however, but it also forged partnerships with The New York Times and ProPublica. A Guardian spokeswoman told BuzzFeed, “In a climate of intense pressure from the U.K. government, The Guardian decided to bring in a U.S. partner to work on the GCHQ documents.” This partnership goes beyond a simple editorial collaboration, and seems tantamount to a journalistic act of civil disobedience in order to serve the public. One colleague, Laura Poitras, a Berlin-based U.S. filmmaker and journalist, with whom Greenwald has broken some of the U.S. surveillance documents provided by Snowden, last month shared a byline with New York Times intelligence reporter James Risen, who himself remains subject to a U.S. court subpoena for his reporting on other U.S. intelligence activities. (Greenwald’s partner Miranda was stopped in London after meeting with Poitras in Berlin.)

Increasingly, journalists are finding strength in this kind of global solidarity that connects newsrooms and crosses borders.

New York University journalism professor and critic Jay Rosen has suggested that journalists as a community need a new kind of “sunlight coalition” to oppose what now seem like the increasingly united government forces of mass surveillance and press suppression. The coalition should bring together journalists, whistleblowers, technologists, advocates, audiences, and more. “They are trying to make journalism harder, slower, and less secure, by working together against you,” Rosen wrote, addressing governments in the third person and colleagues in the second (italics are his). “You have to work together against them to publish anyway and put the necessary materials beyond their reach.”

U.S. journalists saw examples of this kind of solidarity following the revelations about the Justice Department’s mass seizure of phone records from the Associated Press, the department’s labeling of a Fox News reporter as a “co-conspirator,” and the continued push by Obama administration officials for James Risen to testify about his source. But if colleagues like Rusbridger and Rosen are to be heeded, journalists now need to move from a reactive posture to a proactive one designed to address the mounting culture of harassment and intimidation of the press.

In the wake of Snowden’s revelations, and in seeing what it has taken for Greenwald, Poitras, and others to report those stories, there has been an increased emphasis on and interest in digital security for journalists. The most trusted encryption and security technologies tend to be “open-source,” meaning their programming codes remain open to inspection by anyone to ensure that there are no hidden vulnerabilities or built-in “back doors” allowing government intelligence agencies access to encrypted information. Open-source software is a model built on solidarity, one of showing your work, sharing your work, and supporting each other’s work

But 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 for any secrets to hold. Given the expansion of mass surveillance and the new threats facing journalists in a digital age, it is not enough to have a few passionate journalism nerds preaching the benefits of encryption.

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

We need a culture shift within journalism that reaches from the individual freelancer to the largest newsroom, from the smallest press club to the biggest journalism school. To get there, we are going to have to work together with not only our closest professional colleagues, but also our broader communities, beyond journalism, whose members are increasingly participants and stakeholders in the newsgathering process.

In their report on “Post-Industrial Journalism,” C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell, and Clay Shirky, argue “there is no such thing as the news industry anymore.” They suggest that we need a fundamental restructuring that will mean “rethinking every organizational aspect of news production.”

I would argue it also means rethinking how we can organize to make newsgathering resilient and sustainable. As the institutions of journalism evolve and change, so too should press freedom advocacy. We need a global solidarity that reflects our increasingly networked fourth estate, one that can help us build new coalitions and engage our audience as allies.

The new challenges we face are epitomized by the story of Sarah Abdurrahman, a producer with NPR’s “On The Media” program, who was detained with her family and friends at the U.S. border for six hours. She was not detained because of her reporting, but because of her race and religion. During her detention, her electronics were searched, and border patrol agents refused to answer her questions. The New York Times has documented how the U.S. government has used borders as a “backdoor” to seize and search travelers’ electronic devices, an issue with particular implications for journalists, but one that concerns everyone. And we know that journalists like Laura Poitras have faced invasive questioning and harassment at U.S. borders for years.

This is an issue that unites civil liberties groups like the ACLU, digital rights groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, press freedom groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists, and media reform groups like Free Press. However, understanding and defending our rights at the border is also an issue about which we can forge common cause with our communities and our readers. In the last month, more than 75,000 people in the U.S. and U.K. have registered their concern at over the detentions of Abdurrahman, Poitras, and Miranda.

Technology has given journalists new tools to cover their communities, connect with their sources, and collaborate on their reporting. Technology has also helped empower government institutions that are organized in opposition to 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.