CPJ Report: Journalists Shouldn’t Have to Act Like Spooks

When counter-surveillance turns into Journalism 101.

Congratulations, the United States, United Kingdom and Canada. You’ve made it into the Committee to Protect Journalists’ annual Attacks on the Press report. There, among the countries, gangs and terrorist groups that jail, threaten and kill journalists, you appear in your own special essay, on how Western governments’ increasingly Orwellian surveillance tactics are changing how journalists do their jobs.

CPJ technologist Tom Lowenthal lays out a landscape that reads like a screenwriter’s imagining of the ways journalists must work to protect themselves and their sources against government surveillance tactics: the adoption, newsroom by newsroom, of anonymous tip system SecureDrop; the swapping out of standard smartphones in favor of the $3,500-a-pop CryptoPhone; the slog that is mastering PGP mail encryption.  

For Lowenthal, the issue isn’t as much about whether reporters can learn and manage all of these counter-surveillance systems; they can and do, although government agents naturally have “home-field advantage,” as Lowenthal puts it. More concerning is what’s lost when so much money and manpower goes toward preventing the NSA from listening in on a call or monitoring every keystroke.

Shadowy worlds of subterfuge and surveillance should not be a journalist’s habitat. The time a journalist spends learning to play Spy-vs.-Spy could be better spent honing his or her craft. Every hour spent wrangling complex security tools could be an hour spent researching and writing. All the staff on a newsroom’s security team could be writers and editors instead. Each geeky gizmo and air-gapped computer (a computer that is never connected to a network) could be another camera or microphone, or the cost could be spent on payroll. All the extra labor and logistics dedicated to evading espionage is a loss.