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Scribes under surveillance
Even as journalists are busy getting the inside story, there are others who are keeping a close watch on their every move. MIR UBAID reveals that it has now become incumbent on media persons to employ secure communication tools.
Posted/Updated Monday, Jan 23 17:09:05, 2012

Journalists who use electronic gadgets for communication are now realising that governments and other agencies are able to track down their sources with the appropriate spyware. A recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review states that journalists are constantly being monitored and they are often oblivious of the fact.

“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,” reads the article. “In December, WikiLeaks released The Spy Files, a leak containing hundreds of documents from surveillance companies, including contracts, pricelists, and marketing literature.”

The reports have led to concern in journalist circles, even in India. In the 21st century, using multimedia resources is almost imperative for a journalist in the course of his/her work. Journalists rely on cellphones and e-mails for all aspects of their reporting and production process, and now, that has made them vulnerable to spying.

So who’s spying on the media? Governments, for starters. About a month ago, The Hindu reported that the Indian external intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), was added to the list of eight agencies by the UPA government to intercept phone calls, e-mails, and data communication. Additionally, a report on Bloomberg News called “Wired for Repression,” reported that companies such as Nokia, Ericsson, and Hewlett Packard are selling surveillance technologies to countries with dismal human rights records, who then use these tools “to spy on dissidents.”

Despite the alarming extent to which surveillance takes place on media groups and individuals, journalists for the most part seem to be unaware of the insecurity of their own communication. Many rely on Skype for communication, which is relatively more secure than using phones; but can still be wiretapped with the help of a commercially available software. Although Skype has always stressed that their software employs “secure communication,” their algorithms are impossible to test, because Skype does not provide its software’s programme source code to the public (if it did, other software developers could test it and give their reviews).

According to the article in The Hindu, anyone’s call can be monitored by the “now” nine agencies who work for the Indian government. These agencies have their own mechanisms and technologies to tap into phones at anytime. This power was achieved by the government in 2008 when the Information Technology Act was passed in Parliament without debate. It gives the government the power to tap all communication (phone, email, file sharing and more) without a court order or a warrant.

Text messaging from mobile phones is also a risky business. SMS is the most widely used data application in the world with over 2.4 billion active users. Short Messaging Service (SMS) is the protocol by which text messages are sent to your phone. Recently, the Electronic Frontier Foundation carried a report which described how German police used “silent SMS” technology for tracking suspects. It says:

“A “silent” SMS would deliver a “message” to the phone without the user being aware. In other words, the user wouldn’t see a text message; she wouldn’t see any notice at all on her phone. That "silent" SMS interaction, in turn, leads to the creation of a log with the cellphone company that reveals what phone towers the phone was closest to when the SMS was received. German law enforcement apparently likes this technique so much they pinged cellphones with silent SMS over 440,000 times in 2010.”

There are, however, steps that journalists can take to ensure their protection, at least to some extent. When two entities are communicating and do not want a third party to listen in, they “need to communicate in a way that is not susceptible to eavesdropping or interception.” This is known as a secure communication. Messaging online can be made secure by hiding contents of a message through encryption which scrambles the text and requires a key to unlock it. Encryption is a process of cryptography and uses an algorithm to transform text into an unreadable form to those who do not have the key to unlock the encryption. With the help of the key, the assigned receiver can then transform this unreadable text into the original readable message. This process is called decryption.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights advocacy organisation, suggests a full disk encryption to individuals with laptops. If you are investigating a story and chatting with someone through instant messaging online, Off the Record Messaging can encrypt the text, and allow the users to authenticate the identity of those they are communicating with. Even data stored on computers and hard disks can be secured by the use of encryption, including the data in transit on networks (wired or wireless). This data cannot be recovered later without access to the encryption key.

There is some useful encryption software available in the market already, and use of such software should be encouraged and promoted. 

Today’s journalists should have not only a strong sense of ethics, but also a good hold on technical skills in order to ensure the safety of their sources. The grim circumstances make it essential for journalists to employ secure communication tools. Protecting the security of information is a liability for any ethical journalist.

In today’s world, there seems to be only one strong example of an institution that protects confidential sources—WikiLeaks. It has outstanding operational security, which features strong encryption technology that helps it in communicating through encrypted messages in real time. Wikileaks also uses a popular privacy tool which enables anonymous communication called the Tor Project. It is a free software that protects individuals from network surveillance. Even citizen journalists in China use it as a tool to protect their identity while they write, as the country is notorious for its unfavorable views of freedom of speech, particularly in the online world. In addition to journalists, this software is used by activists, whistleblowers, business executives, IT professionals, bloggers, law enforcement officers, and even militaries. Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) recommends Tor as a “mechanism for maintaining civil liberties online.” 

Tor itself is an anonymity network. A user has to download the Tor client software and then all the information that the user routes through Tor’s client software is routed to a worldwide network of servers in order to protect the user’s location and to prevent network surveillance.

Although a journalist may not ever be able to ascertain for sure the extent to which he/she is being watched, the wealth of tools at one’s disposal to achieve some level of protection does exist. It is the journalist’s responsibility to take steps to ensure secure communication. That move will protect not just the journalist, but also the society he/she reports on.  

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