Panelists discuss importance of protecting confidentiality in journalism

Michael Drummond/Senior Staff
A panel of journalism industry professionals spoke about maintaining confidentiality and protecting the identities of sources and reporters Wednesday night at the campus Graduate School of Journalism.

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Industry professionals gathered at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism on Wednesday evening to discuss the importance of protecting confidentiality in an age when qualms over extensive government surveillance are perhaps more pressing than ever.

In the discussion — titled “Reporting in an Age of Eavesdropping”  — panelists discussed how journalists can avoid government scrutiny. Moderated by Jeremy Rue, a lecturer at the Graduate School of Journalism, the panel addressed whether journalists have an obligation to protect their anonymous sources and the steps journalists can take to protect their sources’ identities as well as their own.

Speakers included Trevor Timm, co-founder of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, Jillian York, director for the International Freedom of Expression, an international digital rights group, and Cyrus Farivar, the senior business editor at Ars Technica.

Methods of surveillance utilized by government entities nationwide range from license plate readers used by law enforcement to keylogging, a surveillance software that tracks a person’s every keystroke.

“The problem with surveillance going on right now is because it’s massive and indiscriminate,” Timm said during the discussion. “They’re backing up everybody’s communications and then figuring out later who they think the bad guys are.”

For example, mailing a package containing sensitive information would involve intricate planning. According to Timm, the U.S. Postal Service takes a photo of every package received, which means senders are at risk of revealing their identities if they attach their personal return address on the package or write in their own handwriting.

Additionally, the post office also takes a photo of anyone sending a package, necessitating extra measures such as wearing a disguise or mailing the package from another location’s mailbox to avoid identity exposure.

“You have to go through seven hoops to physically mail a package,” Timm said during the discussion.

Two weeks ago, the head of standards for the BBC spoke to students and said that at the BBC, some staff “go so far as to help sources leave the country to avoid prosecution,” said Edward Wasserman, dean of the journalism school, at the start of the discussion.

The panelists also stressed the importance of data encryption, especially when transmitting classified information through email.

“If you’re using an open Wi-Fi network (without a password), and if you’re not encrypting your data, it’s pretty easy for anyone, for $50 and a bit of skill, to find all of your communications,” York said during the discussion.

For secure web browsing, journalists can use software such as Tor, which masks their location and their computer’s IP address. The IP address is bounced around servers worldwide, masking the computer user’s location.

“I don’t want anyone to go to jail because they talked to me,” Farivar said during the discussion.

Lydia Tuan covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @tuanlydia.