Classifying media and encryption as a threat is danger to press freedom

The U.K. prides itself on its commitment to free expression, but the latest revelations of surveillance of journalists and calls by Britain’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, to ban secure messaging belie the country’s drift toward a more restrictive environment for the press. The revelations further underscore the threat surveillance by Western democracies poses to journalism, a threat that prompted the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Right to Report in the Digital Age campaign.

Journalists must be able to communicate safely with sources to do their jobs. As CPJ Staff Technologist Tom Lowenthal explained in a recent blog on encryption, sources “need be assured of privacy before agreeing to talk.” Encryption mitigatesthe threat of eavesdropping, or removes it altogether. It can even be effective against sophisticated intelligence agencies, the importance of which is underscored by news reports this week.

On Monday, The Guardian reported that in 2008 British intelligence agency GCHQ intercepted and saved communications between reporters and editors at some of the largest news outlets in the world. It also reported that the British government classifies journalists as a threat to national security, “routinely” locating them between terrorists and criminal hackers in its threat indices. “[J]ournalists and reporters representing all types of news media represent a potential threat to security,” one of the internal documents read, according to the Guardian. “Of specific concern are ‘investigative journalists’ who specialise in defence-related exposés either for profit or what they deem to be of the public interest.”

Although the U.K. is an open and democratic country, since the revelations by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden first hit newsstands in June 2013, the press has come under pressure. Powerful laws such as the Terrorism Act and Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) have been used to get around journalistic protections; law enforcement authorities warned that those sharing the video of journalist James Foley being murdered could face prosecution; Internet providers have begun filtering swaths of the Internet at the behest of the government; the director of GCHQ described U.S. technology companies [as] creating “the command and control networks of choice for terrorists;” GCHQ officials forced Guardian staff to grind their hard drives into dust; a senior police official threatened the newspaper’s top editor and staff with prosecution for publishing the Snowden leaks; GCHQ reportedly plotted to target journalists for surveillance and exploitation under electronic spying rules (including rules that allow for the targeting of journalists); and Cameron threatened to enjoin publications if they continued to publish anything about the country’s surveillance excesses.

The prime minister is now seeking to expand the British government’s powers to surveil. On January 12, Cameron pledged to ban secure messaging platforms in the U.K. if his party wins the general election in May. The proposal was ridiculed by security experts as “stupid” and “dangerous,” and Minister for Justice Simon Hughes used mobile messaging app Snapchat, which employs minimal TLS encryption, to communicate his opposition to the remarks via a series of annotated selfies sent to Buzzfeed.

Cameron’s remarks evince a misunderstanding of computer security, as CPJ has previously detailed in response to a similar proposal by U.S. authorities, whose cooperation Cameron reportedly seeks. They even reflect a misunderstanding of national security, as a recently released secret U.S. National Intelligence Council report extolling the virtues of encryption illustrates.

The prime minister’s proposed ban on secure communication tools also represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the responsibility countries such as the U.K. have in defending press freedom. The actions of Western democracies reverberate around the world and the press plays an important role in checking government abuses. Technical solutions such as encryption represent a powerful means by which the press can remain free.

At a press conference on January 7, in the aftermath of the attacks on satirical French weekly Charlie Hebdo, Cameron said: “[W]e should never give up the values that we believe in and defend as part of our democracy and civilisation and believing in a free press, in freedom of expression, in the right of people to write and say what they believe … these values that we have are not sources of weakness for us, they are sources of strength.”

On this point, at least, Cameron is right.