Snowden: Journalists can’t win surveillance arms race against NSA; they
have to lobby for privacy-protecting policies
Edward Snowden has a message for the press when it comes to government surveillance: “Be as adversarial as possible.” The former NSA contractor spoke to Editors Lab participants at Süddeutsche Zeitung in Munich via video chat from Moscow yesterday. He said news organisations are not only uniquely affected by mass surveillance, but uniquely positioned to take action.
In an interview led by author and professor Dan Gillmor, Snowden warned that freedom of the press cannot exist without confidentiality between journalists and their sources. Gillmor kicked off the discussion with a developing report from The Daily Beast on AT&T’s massive spying programme going back as far as 1987. And in this age of increased tracking, the fear of being identified can have a chilling effect on potential whistleblowers.
Snowden explained that the Obama administration has brought forward numerous criminal leak investigations against journalistic sources, despite promises of more transparency in government. Snowden gave the example of the New York Times national security reporter James Risen, who faced intense pressure and possible jail time in 2014 for refusing to testify against his source.
“You must fight this on the front pages”
Although the content of communications between journalists and their sources may be encrypted, the metadata collected by telecom companies and which are given or sold to government agencies can easily be exploited to identify an informant.
Snowden said that encryption can thwart mass surveillance, but not targeted surveillance (against an individual) and that journalists are increasingly a “threatened class”.
Trying to implement technical solutions for privacy is “engaging in an arms race you simply cannot win.”
Since paltry newsroom budgets are no match for massive government funds, he said the press must approach government surveillance from a policy standpoint in their own reporting. “You must fight this on the front pages,” he said.
He pointed out that the media is the only sector in a position to take on this policy fight for an open discussion on which programmes and tactics the US government deems “for the public good.” Snowden said that the press has “unfortunately been somewhat timid about condemning [surveillance issues] in their reporting.” The choice of editorial neutrality, he said, is “understandable” from a fair-and-balanced point of view, but he urged media to be bolder.
In taking a hard line approach, media outlets could “make an actual calculation about value of these programmes and the threat that they represent to the traditional operation of the press.” If the press demands more openness from government, journalists may independently assess surveillance programmes and “we can start having a very different conversation” about whose interests the government is protecting.
Edward Snowden to journalists: “Try to put yourself in the position of the source.”
On the relationship between journalists and whistleblowers, Snowden sees media as necessary intermediaries when it comes to leaked data. He chose to give his US National Security Agency (NSA) documents to journalists back in 2013 rather than simply publishing them online himself. He was not, after all, a high-ranking NSA employee and was very concerned about the risk he was taking for himself and others: “Maybe I didn’t know what I was talking about. Maybe I was making a huge mistake. I didn’t want to harm anyone.”
In order to control the risk he was taking, Snowden explains, “I set out to devise a system in which I could mitigate those risks to the maximum extent possible by imitating the model of checks and balances that was supposed to exist in the United States government.” In order for Snowden to grant journalists access to the documents he believed would “demonstrate criminal activities that had occurred within government” two essential conditions needed to be met in his ad-hoc check-and-balance system.
First, every story needed to serve the public interest “in a democratic context” — “that is wasn’t just newsy”.
Second, news organisations needed to approach the government in advance of publication, not for a veto, but to explain what they were planning to write, why they were planning to write it and to see if they understood the story fully. The journalists also needed to ask if they were going too far and putting individuals at risk, i.e. revealing an agent behind enemy lines.
When asked by Gillmor what he wishes journalists understood about whistleblowers, Snowden answered:
“Try to put yourself in the position of the source.”
He seemed sympathetic to the challenges journalists face when trying to sort through various tips which he said “requires a lot of instinct on these part of the journalist.”
When dealing with platforms such as SecureDrop, Snowden admit “most of the stuff you get will be honestly crazy people,” explaining that he gets his fair share on Twitter, to which the crowd laughed appreciatively. He went on, “Crazy people typically write like crazy people” and that journalists should listen to people who seem “even a little bit legitimate”. ”Journalists normally say, ‘You can tell me your identity. I won’t tell my editor. I’ll protect you,’” Snowden said, but he urged the crowd of journalists to understand that a source may have reasons for maintaining anonymity and to accept information other than the person’s identity in order to establish credibility. He told the audience not to forget:
“Sources aren’t sure if they can trust you, just like you’re not sure if you can trust them.”
Snowden addressed hackathon participants hailing from media organisations in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Romania and France. The audience was able to ask Snowden questions towards the end of the discussion.
Software developer Nicolas Barthe-Dejean from French news site Mediapart, expressed concern that with increased collaboration between media on leaked data sets, that the press was becoming a sort of pseudo-NSA, collecting and storing large amounts of personal data. Snowden underlined the importance of editorial judgement in sharing such data and noted, “Journalists are the only professional class who is really prepared and makes a career out of these kinds of decisions.” He rejects the idea that journalism must always be perfect because without risk, journalists are “limiting the public’s right to know, their access to knowledge about things that really do matter.” Snowden told the group of 50 journalists and thousands more via YouTube:
“The cost of democracy is uncertainty.”
Keeping Snowden’s words in mind, the teams in Munich will build news prototypes to facilitate more efficient investigative journalism. The host for this Editors Lab, Süddeutsche Zeitung, was the point of origin for the massive international Panama Papers investigation.
Chinmayi Arun — Centre for Communication Governance
“Encryption is critical to protecting human rights. We are all entitled to security of communication and it can save the lives of vulnerable people like whistleblowers, human rights activists and investigative journalists.” (Times of India, 12 January 2016)
Silkie Carlo — Policy Officer at Liberty
“There are basic privacy tools that will enable journalists to protect themselves and their sources from the “dragnet mass surveillance” that the government practices as much as they can in their day-to-day work.” (Journalism.co.uk, 3 August 2016)
David Kaye — University of California
“It’s reassuring to see that within the wider ALP, there remains an understanding of the importance of meaningful protections for individual privacy, and for the protection of whistleblowers and other journalists’ sources.” (ZDNet, 12 January 2016)
Alfred de Zayas — United Nations
“Whistleblowers, who should be considered as human rights defenders as they significantly contribute to a culture of transparency and accountability, often pay a heavy price.” (IPS, 25 October 2016)