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Hammering Away State Secrets

Kitty and Her Wall HammerPhoto snapped by @topgold of Kitty hammering away on the Berlin Wall.

YEARS AGO, WE used to pulverise components to ensure they were never read or used again--just like I watched happen when the Berlin Wall came down and Stasi agents destroyed dossiers rather than risk their exposure.

When I worked with classified government material, I followed protocols with all electronic material, printer ribbons, and carbon paper. The only way I could satisfy all the operation security monitors was through the total destruction of the storage or printing apparatus. I remembered those days when reading about "one of the most bizarre moments in the Guardian's long history" that happened when two GCHQ security experts viewed "the destruction of hard drives in the Guardian's basement just to make sure there was nothing in the mangled bits of metal which could possibly be of any interest to passing Chinese agents," wrote Alan Rusbridger. [1]

Destroying physical storage devices might seem merely symbolic today, but the fact UK intelligence officers still follow that protocol means they might not have moved beyond the basics of our digital age. Even though the Guardian's raw material (and the items subject to discovery in a court case) were destroyed in London, copies of those documents are also in locations far removed from the reach of British or American intelligence services.

With the help of anonymised online storage accounts and local file encryption, people can effortlessly transmit sensitive material from laptops, phones and cameras at the point of capture, avoiding all sorts of delays at international checkpoints. If I was a journalist connected to a breaking or continuous story, I wouldn't bring a laptop. Instead, I would learn to work with a smartphone's document capture mode and I would dictate notes into the layers of image files. Both of those tactics create content more difficult to eavesdrop.

We are paying taxes so governments can create more formidable methods of surveillance than ever seen before. That capability is evolving alongside special statutes that prevent accredited journalists from reporting on the existence of the technology. I wonder if informed citizens really comprehend how quickly our open societies are crumbling under the threats posed to journalists who continue reporting on the steady development of a total surveillance state.

Sometimes I feel like a conspiracy theorist. I listen to Adam Curry and John C. Dvorak once a week--not enough to be totally subsumed by No Agenda. But I also read The Guardian daily, where editors tell me, "We are not there yet, but it may not be long before it will be impossible for journalists to have confidential sources. Most reporting-–indeed, most human life in 2013--leaves too much of a digital fingerprint." You're doing that now by reading this blog post because even though you might have arrived via an encrypted browser session, the web server knows where the page has landed for perusal. Knowing that, you shouldn't feel very comfortable.

1. Alan Rusbridger -- "David Miranda, schedule 7 and the danger that all reporters now face in The Guardian, August 19, 2013.

2. Guardian -- Dreamworks Fifth Estate reviews.