Spying on Journalists is Easy
When promising anonymity, discreetly stashed notes and a tight lip are the precautions of journalism’s past. Reporters have gone to jail rather than share the information they’ve gathered for a court proceeding, but as reporters increasingly depend on technology to correspond and collect material, the fruits of that labor can be accessed without a summons, subpoena, or the journalist even realizing it.
Telephone, Skype, e-mail, texts, and instant messaging are easy to intercept with the right technology. The surveillance industry is big business, and governments are regular customers. The stealth and sophistication of this monitoring merchandise was revealed in December when WikiLeaks released The Spy Files, a leak containing hundreds of documents from surveillance companies, including contracts, pricelists, and marketing literature. There were even some eerie animated videos from a firm called Gamma International, creator of Finfisher spyware, showing how their product can access a computer via a fake iTunes update, along with options for bugging a person’s e-mail, cell phone, or Skype conversation.
Journalists Ben Elgin and Vernon Silver produced a series for Bloomberg News called “Wired for Repression,” reporting that western technology companies like Nokia, Ericsson, and Hewlett Packard, to name just a few, are selling surveillance technologies to countries with very poor human rights records, who then use these tools to spy on dissidents. There are chilling examples in the series, including the story of Saeid Pourheydar, an activist and opposition blogger in Iran who was arrested for protesting the Iranian government. Pourheydar was accused of speaking with foreign media and interrogated with transcripts from correspondence he’d had with Voice of America and BBC.
Elgin spoke with Dave Davies on NPR’s Fresh Air about the “Wired for Repression” series and how it’s changed the way he thinks about his own communications:
Elgin: …I began very carefully choosing the words I would use in communications to people, particularly if they’re inside these countries. I mean, I don’t know what triggers the filters there. Sometimes I would seek out people’s help, human rights activists and such who have worked in these countries, and just trying to get a sense for: How can I effectively communicate with somebody inside of these countries?
Communications with those outside the United States aren’t the only ones that require caution. The Obama White House has prosecuted more whistleblowers than all previous administrations combined, so there’s plenty of safeguarding needed domestically as well.