Aided by Silicon Valley, U.S. government ferrets out journalists’ confidential sources

The New York Times | Scripting News
Two Times stories over the weekend focused on threats to journalists’ ability to keep their sources confidential. One of those threats is familiar to journalists: the government. The other is relatively new: Silicon Valley. Both hinge on reporters’ increasing reliance on electronic, third-party means of communication.

First, the Times’ Adam Liptak describes how the U.S. government is increasingly using technological means to ferret out leakers. He writes about the government’s case against former CIA agent John C. Kiriakou, who is accused of leaking classified information to journalists about a captured Al Qaeda operative:

The criminal complaint in the case says it is based largely on “e-mails recovered from search warrants served on two e-mail accounts associated with Kiriakou.” …

“The Kiriakou complaint is astonishing,” said [Federation of American Scientists' Steven Aftergood], “because you see the government delving into the innards of the news production process.”

Only one of the journalists involved in the Kiriakou case has been publicly identified: Scott Shane of The Times. A spokeswoman for The Times has said that neither the paper nor Mr. Shane had been contacted by investigators or had provided any information to them. The digital trail, it seems, was enough.

The Times’ Nick Bilton follows up on a story about how the iPhone app Path uploaded users’ address book contacts without their knowledge. The incident shows that smartphones and their apps are weak links when it comes to protecting sources:

Lawyers I spoke with said that my address book — which contains my reporting sources at companies and in government — is protected under the First Amendment. On Path’s servers, it is frightfully open for anyone to see and use, because the company did not encrypt the data. …

A person’s contacts are so sensitive that Alec Ross, a senior adviser on innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, said the State Department was supporting the development of an application that would act as a “panic button” on a smartphone, enabling people to erase all contacts with one click if they are arrested during a protest.

Bilton’s post won praise from Dave Winer:

Nick Bilton … was right that information in address books, in some contexts, is a matter of life and death. In some countries in some contexts people do get killed for talking to reporters.

Related: How journalists can protect themselves & the news they’ve gathered if arrested on the job (Poynter)

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