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How Edward Snowden Introduced Encryption into Journalistic Communications

Edward Snowden in 2013.

Edward Snowden in 2013.

On October 21, 2014 Steve Coll, dean of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, published an article entitled "How Edward Snowden Changed Journalism" in The New Yorker, from which I quote:

". . . . one of the least remarked upon aspects of the [Edward] Snowden matter is that he has influenced journalistic practice for the better by his example as a source. Famously, when Snowden first contacted [Glenn] Greenwald, he insisted that the columnist communicate only through encrypted channels. Greenwald couldn’t be bothered. Only later, when [Laura] Poitras told Greenwald that he should take the trouble, did Snowden take him on as an interlocutor.

"It had been evident for some time before Snowden surfaced that best practices in investigative reporting and source protection needed to change—in large part, because of the migration of journalism (and so many other aspects of life) into digital channels. The third reporter Snowden supplied with National Security Agency files, Barton Gellman, of the Washington Post, was well known in his newsroom as an early adopter of encryption. But it has been a difficult evolution, for a number of reasons.

"Reporters communicate copiously; encryption makes that habit more cumbersome. Most reporters don’t have the technical skills to make decisions on their own about what practices are effective and efficient. Training is improving (the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, at Columbia Journalism School, where I serve as dean, offers a useful place to start), but the same digital revolution that gave rise to surveillance and sources like Snowden also disrupted incumbent newspapers and undermined their business models. Training budgets shrank. In such an unstable economic and audience environment, source protection and the integrity of independent reporting fell on some newsrooms’ priority lists.

"Snowden has now provided a highly visible example of how, in a very high-stakes situation, encryption can, at a minimum, create time and space for independent journalistic decision-making about what to publish and why. Snowden did not ask to have his identity protected for more than a few days—he seemed to think it wouldn’t work for longer than that, and he also seemed to want to reveal himself to the public. Yet the steps he took to protect his data and his communications with journalists made it possible for the Guardian and the Post to publish their initial stories and bring Snowden to global attention.

"It took an inside expert with his life and liberty at stake to prove how much encryption and related security measures matter. 'There was no risk of compromise,' Snowden told the Guardian, referring to how he managed his source relationship with Poitras and the others before their meeting in Hong Kong. 'I could have been screwed,'but his encryption and other data-security practices insured that it 'wasn’t possible at all' to intercept his transmissions to journalists “'unless the journalist intentionally passed this to the government' "

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