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OPINION: Tech May Fill in for Journalists’ Expired Legal Protections

October 17, 2013, 4:30 PM HST
* Updated October 18, 12:22 PM
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Senator Clayton Hee isn’t a big fan of the media.

That’s not exactly breaking news, unless you happened to miss the Oahu Democrat’s successful efforts this year to gut Hawaii’s once-venerable ‘Shield Law’ for journalists.

Hee, who fought to gut core protections in a law meant to protect reporters and their sources, managed to mangle the original Shield Law so thoroughly that the Legislature as a whole let it expire.

As of today, Hawaii’s journalists are busily working away “commando-style.” That is to say, with few protections.

In the eyes of the law, we’re pretty much naked.

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Our newfound vulnerability could of course be reversed in the next legislative session, but in the meantime, we can’t help but notice we’re not the only ones feeling left in the cold by politicians.

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At the national level, the Obama administration has aggressively pursued leaks to the media, managing to file more charges under the 1917 Espionage Act than any other presidency combined in US history (7 out of 10).

And contrary to common wisdom, you don’t have to leak reams of secure documents to earn a knock on your door from the Justice Department.

Take for instance former CIA Analyst John Kiriakou, who was arrested in 2012 under the Espionage Act for blowing the whistle on the agency’s torture program.

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Kiriakou had disclosed the existence of the program to a reporter from the New York Times, but insists he provided no classified documents or operational details. The charges, which Kiriakou maintains were retaliatory, were later dropped.

A few months later, it was revealed that the FBI had fetched the phone records of 20 Associated Press reporters in effort to chase down who had leaked the news of a foiled Yemeni bomb plot to the press.

Friction between journalists and government is of course nothing new, but the ability of governments to sniff out the electronic footprints of reporters and their sources has begun to threaten one of journalism’s core functions: the safe transport of public-interest information from sources to the public.

Apart from sparking predictable outrage from the media, this trend also caught the attention of some of the world’s leading net nerds, many of whom are zealous defenders of what they see as fundamental human rights: free and open information.

Famed activist and hacker Aaron Swartz. Public domain image.

Famed activist and hacker Aaron Swartz. Public domain image.

Before his tragic suicide in January, 26-year-old computer prodigy and famed MIT hacker Aaron Swartz had been working on an anonymous system for leaking documents named “DeadDrop.”

After his death, DeadDrop was adopted by the Freedom of the Press Foundation, and slowly tweaked into a program that the Foundation recently announced would be available for free to all media outlets.

Known simply as “SecureDrop,” the program is meant to be a heavily encrypted digital mailbox of sorts, where anonymous sources can deliver documents to media outlets without fear of incrimination.

To aid in the adoption of SecureDrop, the Foundation has offered to send security consultants to news outlets to aid them with installation. In some cases, the Foundation may even foot the bill for the necessary hardware.

The success of systems like SecureDrop, and how quickly they are adopted by media outlets both in Hawai`i and abroad remains to be seen.

But it’s clear that journalists in Hawai`i will now be forced to deploy more sophisticated methods to obtain information and protect sources, in the absence of legal protections such as the Shield Law.

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