The United States is one of the easier countries in which to be a journalist. Compared to countries with authoritarian governments in Russia, China, and nearly everywhere in the Middle East, a reporter can clash with the U.S. government and still go home from work feeling safe. Reporters without Borders, a nonprofit organization that advocates for reporters’ rights, has ranked the U.S. in the top 50 countries with the most press freedom since 2002.
Things are far from perfect. The Obama Administration has hotly pursued whistleblowers—especially those who leak information related to national security—and its attempt to force James Risen, a journalist for The New York Times, to reveal confidential sources was a major setback to press freedom.
But before long, these past eight years may look like summer camp for journalists. On Tuesday, American voters chose a new president, and he’s not a friend to the press.
Donald Trump has called for an “opening up” of libel laws in the U.S., which would make it easier to sue journalists who write unflattering things, and maintained blacklists of media outlets he didn’t want covering him. He’s got a penchant for surveillance, allegedly wiring up the phones in his Mar-A-Lago resort so that he could listen in on any call from the handset at his bedside. He’s called for boycotting Apple after the company refused to unlock the iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters when asked by the FBI. He’s “keeping a list” of political figures who were disloyal to him, and he has a habit of singling out journalists he dislikes.
If you’re a journalist in the U.S., all this means that it’s time to protect yourself.
The government can ask technology companies to turn over information—like the contents of an email or instant message, for example—if they’ve got the appropriate warrant or court order. The best way to keep overreaching law enforcement from doing this is to use a messaging platform that, by design, can’t read the data it shuttles from user to user.
Here’s how: Tech-savvy reporters, including many who focus on digital privacy and surveillance, routinely use tools that encrypt their online communications end-to-end—that is, in such a way that not even the company delivering messages can read their contents. Signal, a smartphone app, is the medium of choice for privacy-conscious communicators, and is probably the easiest way to call or text securely. Encrypting email using PGP is also an option, but it’s far more cumbersome.
It’s also important to make up complex passwords—and never to reuse a username and password combination for more than one site. Password managers like 1Password, LastPass, and Dashlane can create a different randomized password for every website, and remember them all so that you don’t have to. Turning on two-factor authentication on every service that supports it—Google, Slack, Dropbox, Amazon, etc.—makes it much harder for hackers to get into your accounts, by requiring you to approve every login with a mobile device. And for those who need to browse the internet securely, a properly configured Tor browser allows users to poke around the web anonymously.
Already, journalists and human-rights activists around the world operate under hostile governments that use surveillance to detect and disrupt their work. To understand what U.S.-based journalists might learn from them, I reached out to Ali Bangi, the co-director of ASL19, a non-profit organization that helps Arabic- and Persian-speaking internet users protect their privacy and anonymity online, and bypass internet censorship.
Bangi made two predictions based on his experience with the media landscape in Iran. First, he said, journalists will need to work harder to keep their anonymous sources safe. Electronic surveillance can make it easy for the government to determine the identity a whistleblower, if a reporter isn’t careful. A vindictive administration could deploy surveillance tools more freely in order to figure out who’s leaking information.
It’s also possible that more types of information will be considered sensitive and dangerous. That’s why people other than national-security reporters should think about communicating more securely: Even run-of-the-mill political reporting could make journalists a target.
“Activists and journalists working on hostile situations understand very well that, unless you take the necessary precautions, your online activities can have consequences for your physical safety,” said Daniel Bedoya Arroyo, the incident-response manager at Access Now, a digital-rights advocacy group. “For example, a mobile device can reveal with a decent level of accuracy your physical location, even if geolocalization services are disabled. And unfortunately, this increased risk and fear can cause self-censorship in many situations.”
A survey conducted by PEN America, an organization that promotes freedom of expression, found that 16 percent of writers in the U.S. avoided writing or speaking about a topic as a result of government surveillance, and that another 11 percent had “seriously considered” avoiding a topic for that reason. (The survey was conducted after Edward Snowden’s leaks first began to reveal the massive scale of the National Security Agency’s spying operations.)
“If the government is monitoring your communication, or if you even perceive that they might be, you are not going to say precisely what you think, particularly in repressive societies where there are consequences for critical expression,” said Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The fact that the government’s spying apparatus will soon be under Trump’s control is causing panic among privacy advocates. Writing in The Guardian, Trevor Timm, the executive director of the nonprofit Freedom of the Press, argued that Trump could wreak havoc using President Obama’s secret drone program and a powerful NSA:
In a little over two months, Donald Trump—after his shocking victory last night—will control a vast, unaccountable national security and military apparatus unparalleled in world history. The nightmare that civil libertarians have warned of for years has now tragically come true: instead of dismantling the surveillance state and war machine, the Obama administration and Democrats institutionalized it—and it will soon be in the hands of a maniac.
It will go down in history as perhaps President Obama’s most catastrophic mistake.
Evan Greer, the campaign director for Fight for the Future, a digital-rights nonprofit, called on Obama to shut down the NSA’s mass-surveillance programs in next few months, before he leaves office.
Institutional checks and a strong first amendment will probably keep press freedoms in the U.S. from eroding too much in the next four or eight years. It’s certainly won’t approach the situation in countries like Iran, where a journalist named Yashar Soltani was thrown in solitary confinement in September for exposing corruption in the office of Tehran’s mayor.
“Encrypt, encrypt, encrypt!” said Bangi when I asked him what an Iranian journalist might advise an American reporter working under Trump’s NSA. “And if it's not safe anymore, leave.”
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