Source marked: how journalists’ smartphones blow contacts’ cover

Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger

IFJ/NUJ/Guardian conference – Journalism In An Age Of Mass Surveillance
The Guardian, London 16 October 2014  Above: Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger

Cocktail shakers are newly popular among Guardian journalists, and manual typewriters are making a comeback.  Both result from rising fears about the state’s ability to gather ‘metadata’ from reporter’s telephones.  “Smart phones are tracking devices that (can be used to) reveal our sources,” Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger told the audience.  “The authorities can’t resist the chance to hack us and find out what we are doing”.

Cocktail shakers used as shields render phones harder to track; manual typewriters leave no digital footprint.  Even these might not be enough, however, the Guardian’s former Moscow bureau chief Luke Harding told attendees.  A sophisticated audio bug might allow spooks to decode text from the minutely different sound of each of an old typewriter’s keystroke.  “My experience, in Russia at least, is that the level of surveillance of journalists is like something out of a John Le Carré novel set in the 1980s.”

Both were speaking at ‘Journalism In The Age Of Mass Surveillance’, a one-day event organised by the International Federation Of Journalists, the National Union Of Journalists and The Guardian.  The sold-out event attracted more than 80 journalists from around the world. Edward Snowden, the whistleblower whose revelations, published in The Guardian, drew attention to the extent of state surveillance, spoke to the event via a video link. “Advances in technology mean that anybody can be watched anywhere.  If its is worrying what happens in the advanced democracies, just think what is possible in countries where there is less respect for the rule of law,” he warned.

Whistleblower Edward Snowden, appearing by video link

Whistleblower Edward Snowden, appearing by video link

Guardian journalist Ewen MacAskill, who worked on the Snowden story, told the conference that their source was appalled at their low standards of data security when they first worked together.  “Snowden considered nothing less than a 68 character password,” he said. Even with the most elaborate passwords, however, smart phones make is easy for state agencies and telecoms providers to work out who are a journalist’s sources. The metadata about which MacAskill’s boss worries is the wrap-around information about where a phone has been used and the other mobile devices used in close proximity – all of which can be tracked whether the phone is on or off.

IFJ President Jim Boumelha linked the rise in surveillance of journalists with a “post 9/11 clampdown on free speech”.  And, Bernie Lunzer of the US Newspapers Guild confirmed this view, saying: “Obama is much worse on reporters (freedom to report) than was the previous Bush administration”.

Turning its attention to what can be done to protect sources when electronic surveillance is so easy, the meeting considered two approaches.  A panel of lawyers, including Gavin Millar QC agreed that reform is necessary of the Regulation Of Investigatory Powers Act and the Data Retention And Investigatory Powers Act and the Police And Criminal Evidence Act.

A second panel, including The Guardian’s head of information security Dave Boxall, considered the practical steps that journalists could take to prevent state snooping on their work.  These included a range of technical steps such as TOR, Tails, SecureDrop and Whisper.  Boxall warned, however, that daily promises from vendors that they were offering ‘the most secure system yet’ nearly always fell short of claims made on their behalf.

Comedian Mark Thomas

Comedian Mark Thomas

Comedian Mark Thomas told the conference about the campaign he is running with the NUJ to encourage journalists to apply to the Police to uncover what information has been gathered on them.  “A subject access request turned me up on a Police spotter card and counted as a ‘domestic extremist’”, he said.

The meeting concluded by agreeing a plan of action.  This includes building a culture of information security among journalists; their unions campaigning to defend sources and reigning in the surveillance superstructure; and encouraging media organisations to resist new surveillance laws.

Afterwards Guardian cocktail shakers were deployed more conventionally, and attendees enjoyed a drink courtesy of the paper’s NUJ chapel.

Conference resources.

Live Tweets of the event #freepress #NUJ

There is a very full video record of the event on the NUJ’s website.

Photographs © Tim Dawson