Are whistleblowers an endangered species in a digital age?

Luke Balvert | Account Manager Media, People, Politics

Is fairness and freedom dead on the internet?

Big Brother (or someone) is always watching, collecting data and tracing our every move via the multitude of devices now acting as extensions of our arms.

Take for example the volatile digital landscape through which journalists ply their trade in order to secure a scoop or break news.

Today, the laptop and phone play as important a role in the life of an investigative reporter as the notebook once did.

That’s because it is easier and more convenient to communicate with someone digitally rather than in person. 

But, it pays to remember there are vast amounts of data that can tell interested parties everything about what story a reporter is pursuing, and the source they’re protecting.

Think Edward Snowden, the scandal of Facebook sharing its users’ data with Cambridge Analytica and, closer to home, the leaking of details about Winston Peters’ seven years of superannuation over-payments.

Are whistleblowers safe in today’s digitally-savvy society? Can confidential communications still exist?

Earlier this year Stuff.co.nz joined SecureDrop as part of a global effort to protect those who have spoken out in the public interest.

SecureDrop, maintained and promoted by the Freedom of the Press Foundation, is used by newsrooms around the world including the New York Times, The Guardian, The Intercept, ProPublica and Fairfax Media in Australia.

The open-source system enables sources to communicate without revealing their identities and to pass on documents and data without leaving digital footprints.

“History is punctuated with examples of whistleblowers who have spoken out in the public interest, and it’s our duty as reporters to protect those people,” explains Stuff.

The Freedom of the Press Foundation says SecureDrop aims to avoid the attempts to silence and threaten whistleblowers which have been seen internationally.

They say this because sources and whistleblowers need confidence in their anonymity before passing on information that could see them lose their jobs if they are discovered.

A thought-leading report by the Information Law and Policy Centre entitled Protecting Sources and Whistleblowers in a Digital Age’ considers these developments.

With the support of Guardian News and Media in the UK, the report examines how journalists can reduce threats to whistleblowing and examines the rights and responsibilities of journalists, whistleblowers and lawmakers.

It touches on how the technological protections for sources have not kept pace with the ability of states and others to use technology to intercept or monitor communications.

Amid concern about the growing technological and legal vulnerability of confidential sources, it suggests media outlets review and strengthen their policies on secure technology, source protection, and they ways journalists engage with sources who wish to remain anonymous.

Back in New Zealand, Newsroom recently reported on documents obtained under the Official Information Act which outline some of the efforts made by three Government departments to find the person responsible for the Winston Peters leak.

National headlines forced the Ministry of Social Development, the Department of Internal Affairs and Inland Revenue to all launch investigations to determine whether their staff had been the source of the leak.

These documents show the great lengths taken to find that person through interviews and an examination of electronic communication records – efforts which ultimately failed.

Newsroom reported this almost as a “how-to” guide for whistleblowers looking to evade discovery.

While this proved to be a win for anonymity, it still calls into question one’s ability to remain anonymous while sending documents and data through the minefield of online tracking.

Technological change means that journalists and publications are faced with unprecedented difficulties in protecting their sources.

As the Newsroom reporter surmised: “We may live in a digital age, but it appears analogue methods can be best when it comes to staying off the radar.”

Does this make you look at your devices differently?