Monday, October 26, 2015

3 things European broadcast editors and heads of news should know about Snowden's leaks

3 things European broadcast editors and heads of news should know about Snowden's leaks

by Vian Bakir

26 October 2015

Today is the European Broadcast Union’s (EBU) 10th Annual News Assembly – a closed congregation of Europe’s top broadcast editors and heads of news. They meet in Berlin to discuss pressing issues facing European broadcasters – and one of their panels is on Journalism post-Snowden.

I’m one of the panelists, and my esteemed co-panelists are Annie Machon, former MI5 intelligence officer, Evan Light (of the well received Snowden Portable Archive, Concordia University) and Marcel Rosenbach (award-winning Journalist  for Der Spiegel).

The panel chair, journalist and author Alan Pearce, asked me what three things I thought the EBU needed to know. Here is my reply.

1. Do journalists know enough about what digital surveillance is possible, and are they taking appropriate professional steps to ensure journalistic independence and protection of sources?

Leaks from Snowden published or broadcast since 2013 claim that American and British intelligence agencies bulk collect data from (a) the servers of US tele-communications companies (via PRISM) and (b) by directly tapping fibre-optic cables carrying internet traffic (via UPSTREAM run by the National Security Agency (NSA) and TEMPORA run by Government Communication HeadQuarters (GCHQ)).

Reportedly, in the UK, the content of communications is stored for three days and metadata for up to thirty days (Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, 2015). The UK’s official response to this is vague, and storage lengths have not been confirmed by its intelligence agencies (ISC, 2015). The UK’s Interception of Communications Commissioner’s Office (IOCCO) finds that ‘every agency has a different view on what constitutes an appropriate retention period for material’ (May, 2015, p. 33); and government-commissioned report RUSI (2015, p. 22) finds that British intelligence agencies keep bulk data sets for as long as they deem their utility reasonable or legitimate.  In the USA, PRISM data is stored for five years and UPSTREAM data for two years (Simcox, 2015).

This data that is bulk collected includes communication content such as email, instant messages, the search term in a Google search, and full web browsing histories. Also bulk collected are file transfers; and what is called communications data (in the UK) and metadata (in the USA) (for instance, who the communication is from and to whom; when it was sent; duration of the contact; from where it was sent, and to where; the record of web domains visited; and mobile phone location data) (Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, 2015).

Intelligence agencies have analytics programs to help them select and analyse this collected content. While intelligence agencies are largely silent on their analytics programmes, the published Snowden leaks have furnished details. They allegedly comprise:
-       PRINTAURA, which automatically organises data collected by PRISM;
-       FASCIA, which allows the NSA to track mobile phone movements by collecting location data (which mobiles broadcast even when not being used for calls or text messages);
-       CO-TRAVELER, which looks for unknown associates of known intelligence targets by tracking people whose movements intersect;
-       PREFER, which analyses text messages to extract information from missed call alerts and electronic business cards (to establish someone’s social network) and roaming charges (to establish border crossings);
-       XKEYSCORE, which is an NSA program allowing analysts to search databases covering most things typical users do online, as well as engaging in real-time interception of an individual’s internet activity;
-       DEEP DIVE XKEYSCORE that promotes to TEMPORA data ingested into XKEYSCORE with ‘potential intelligence value’ (Anderson, 2015, pp. 330-332).

In Oct 2015, in an interview with Panorama, Snowden also revealed how GCHQ could gain access to mobiles by sending an invisible encrypted text message that users wouldn't see and from there deploy a ‘Smurf Suite’ of spying tools (Panorama 2015):
-       DREAMY SMURF - can turn your phone on and off;
-       NOSEY SMURF is a ‘hot mic’ tool that can turn on your microphone and listen in on anything you are saying or what is going on around you;
-       TRACKER SMURF can locate you with more precision than typical methods of triangulation from phone towers.

There is another range of programs to alter the very fabric of digital communication through online covert action (this reported by Greenwald (2014) in The Intercept). This includes publication of fake materials and deceptive content designed to influence users’ thoughts and behaviour. Eg:
-       ‘CLEAN SWEEPis said to be able to ‘Masquerade Facebook Wall Posts for individuals or entire countries; ‘
-       GATEWAYcan ‘artificially increase traffic to a website;
-       ‘SLIPSTREAMcan inflate page views on websites.
-       ‘CHANGELINGprovides the ‘Ability to spoof any email address and send email under that identity; ‘
-       HAVOK is a ‘Real-time website cloning technique allowing on-the-fly alterations;
-       ‘SPACE ROCKET is a programme covering insertion of media into target networks.

Some of these tools are aimed at ‘extremists’ and include surveillance and disruptive intervention tools such as:
-       ‘SILVERBLADEwhich is said to report extremist material on DAILYMOTION;
-       ‘SILVERFOXwhich is a list provided to industry of live extremist material files hosted on FFUs [Free File Upload services];
-       ‘SILVERLORDwhich disrupts video-based websites allegedly hosting extremist content through 'concerted target discovery and content removal';
-       ‘BUMPERCAR+, an automated system that supports BUMPERCAR operations used to ‘disrupt and deny internet-based terror videos or other material.

The digital surveillance, then, is a highly complex, abstract and secretive arrangement. It involves citizens, global telecommunications companies, and multiple nations' intelligence agencies, potentially permeating all aspects of our digital lives (Bakir 2015). 
Governments say such blanket surveillance is legal, proportionate and necessary to prevent terrorism and organised crime online. While it rarely explains (via the press) how the blanket surveillance actually helps, it seems that there are at least two aspects. Firstly, it allows new threats (concerning criminal or terroristic activity) to be detected, by enabling new targets to be identified (eg through telephone numbers or email addresses) (ISC 2015). Secondly it allows reassembly of specific communications: the way digital information travels around the world (broken up into multiple packets of data and only reassembled at the end destination) requires a 'collect all' mentality to ensure an entire single communication is retrievable intact (RUSI 2015).

Questions raised:

-       Does the press really understand the extent of what is possible regarding digital surveillance?
-       Are journalists encrypting their communications as a matter of standard protocol, to protect themselves and their sources?
-       Is the press adequately challenging governments’ definitions of ‘extremists’ who may be being surveilled? After all, one government’s ‘extremist’ may be another government’s ‘political activist’.

2. Is Public Opinion on the debate of privacy v. national security adequately reflected in the press?

Governments frame the debate as one of privacy v. national security – if you want better national security you need to give up some of your rights to privacy. For instance, the UK’s Intelligence and Security Committee states in its report, Privacy and Security: A Modern and Transparent Legal Framework:
we do not subscribe to the point of view that it is acceptable to let some terrorist attacks happen in order to uphold the individual right to privacy—nor do we believe that the vast majority of the British public would’ (ISC 2015, p. 36).

But the European public rejects this dichotomy. The public wants increased national security (as delivered by surveillance) and it also wants increased privacy and greater oversight of surveillant powers.

This is the key finding from the 9 nations EU study on Surveillance, Privacy and Security (SurPRISE) in 2014 of 2000 citizens from nine European countries (Austria, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Norway, Spain, Switzerland, UK) and their attitudes towards surveillance-oriented security technologies and privacy. It finds:
o   The EU public think that although certain surveillance technologies are effective for combating national security threats and should be used, that they compromise human rights and are abused by security agencies. These concerns especially apply to deep packet inspection[i]. (Less so for Smart CCTV[ii] and smartphone location tracking[iii].)
o   An ongoing study by Digital Citizenship and Surveillance Society Project (DCSS) finds that in the UK, it is younger people & ethnic minorities who are most concerned about lack of transparency & consent when it comes to state surveillance of digital communications.
o   SurPRISE has identified the criteria for what makes security-oriented surveillance technologies acceptable for EU publics:
§  Targeted rather than blanket surveillance,
§  Clear communications to citizens about what is going on,
§  Strong regulatory oversight.

Questions raised:

-       Is the press doing enough to reflect the EU public's desire for targeted rather than blanket surveillance, clear communications to citizens about what is going on, and strong regulatory oversight?
-       Are public views on privacy and security (that they want both, and don't see these as things to be traded-off) being taken into account in press coverage?
-       Is the press adequately scrutinising or challenging intelligence agencies’ surveillance powers?
-       Is the press adequately scrutinising or challenging government regulation on surveillance?

3. Is the relationship between intelligence agencies and the press too close?

a) Why did it take so long for us to learn about this surveillance?
               i.     There’s blanket government secrecy on intelligence issues, which mainstream press largely seems not to challenge. This arises from the secrecy of intelligence agencies and their political masters that makes it difficult for journalists to obtain and verify information. Importantly, no journalist or editor wants to be accused of compromising national security by blabbing state secrets.
              ii.     National security whistle-blowers find it hard to get their story out there.
Edward Snowden tried for months to get his favoured reporter, Glenn Greenwald, to download and learn encryption protocols so he could tell him what material he had to leak. He only succeeded by going through Greenwald’s trusted contact, documentary-maker Laura Poitras (2014) (resulting in her documentary, CitizenFour). To take another example, Bradley/Chelsea Manning tried to contact many US news outlets with his military intelligence logs on the Afghan War and the Iraq War – but only Wikileaks would take it.

b) Is the mainstream press willing and able to challenge government’s intelligence claims?
The UK’s intelligence oversight committee argues that intelligence agencies’ ‘bulk data collection’ does not constitute mass surveillance since British intelligence agencies do not have ‘the resources, the technical capability, or the desire to intercept every communication of British citizens, or of the internet as a whole’ (ISC, 2015, p. 2).  However, this reassurance is hardly future-proof given the rapidity of technological and analytical Big Data developments (as the ability to collect, connect and derive meaning from disparate data-sets expands) (Lyon, 2014); given secret intelligence-sharing relationships between ‘Five Eyes’ countries (UK, USA, Australia, New Zealand, Canada) and beyond (Emmerson, 2014); and given that governmental ‘desire’ is susceptible to change, especially following terrorist atrocities.

Yet, are these areas probed by the mainstream press? It would seem not. The ongoing Digital Citizenship and Surveillance Society Project (DCSS) study finds that UK mainstream press cover government’s demands for social media firms to do more to fight terrorism rather than the human right to privacy that this infringes; while any privacy infringements covered are those of MPs rather than the general public.

Alongside this regular privileging of government sources is a lack of critical attention to intelligence-planted domestic propaganda, where intelligence sources hide behind a cloak of anonymity (Lashmar 2013). Concerning Snowden, an attentive reader (step up, MediaLens) may notice what looks like attempts to directly plant intelligence-sourced propaganda in the British mainstream press. For instance, in June 2015, the Sunday Times reported that Snowden had endangered the lives of American and British spies because Russia and China had decrypted his stolen files. As noticed by critics online, however, the report contained highly contradictory information – within the same sentence. For instance:
‘One senior Home Office official accused Snowden of having “blood on his hands”, although Downing Street said there was “no evidence of anyone being harmed”.’
Note that all government and intelligence sources in this story are anonymous. Furthermore, the NSA would not be drawn to comment.

Questions raised:

-       Is the press doing enough to challenge blanket government secrecy on intelligence issues?
-       Is the press doing enough to enable national security whistle-blowers to blow the whistle?
-       Should the press be more careful in which sources it regularly privileges (ie politicians), and which issues therefore dominate the press’ agenda (ie the need for social media firms to do more to fight terrorism and the need for MPs’ privacy, but not the right of the public to privacy)?
-       Is the press able to keep on top of intelligence claims, and offer adequate scrutiny (especially issues that combine abstract, complex technologies, global companies, international relations, and domestic national security)?
-       Should the press continue its agreement with intelligence agencies and political aides to keep them anonymous when citing their intelligence claims – particularly when no evidence is presented to back up the claims?


Anderson, D. (2015). A question of trust: Report of the investigatory powers review. OGL. Retrieved from
Bakir, V. (2015). 'Veillant panoptic assemblage': mutual watching and resistance to mass surveillance after Snowden. Media & Communication 3(3).
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. (2015). Snowden surveillance archive. Retrieved from
Hintz, A. et al. (2015). Digital Citizenship and Surveillance Society Project (DCSS). Retrieved from
Emmerson, B. (2014) Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism (UN Doc A/69/397). Retrieved from
Greenwald, G. (2014). Hacking Online Polls and Other Ways British Spies Seek to Control the Internet. The Intercept, July 14. Retrieved from
ISC. (2015). Privacy and security: A modern and transparent legal framework. (House of Commons). Retrieved from:
Lashmar, P. (2013). Urinal or conduit? Institutional information flow between the UK intelligence services and the news media. Journalism, October
Lyon, D. (2014). Surveillance, Snowden, and big data: capacities, consequences, critique. Big Data & Society, July–December, 1-13.
Pavone, V., Esposti, S. D., & Santiago, E. (2015). D2.4—Key factors affecting public acceptance and acceptability of SOSTs. Surprise. Retrieved from
RUSI. (2015). A Democratic licence to operate: Report of the independent surveillance review. London: Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.
Simcox, R. (2015). Surveillance after Snowden: Effective espionage in an age of transparency. London: The Henry Jackson Society.

[i] DPI opens and analyses messages as they travel through the digital network, identifying those that may pose particular risks.
[ii] Smart CCTV features digital cameras, which are linked together in a system that has the potential to recognise people’s faces, analyse their behaviour and detect objects.
[iii] Smartphone location tracking analyses location data from a mobile phone, to glean information about the location and movements of the phone user over a period of time.