Countering electronic surveillance

In a chilling account in this month’s issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, freelance journalist Matthieu Aikins recounts how hackers in the employ of the Libyan government were able to access the email accounts of foreign journalists. It wasn’t that difficult – nothing that a  hacker of average skills in  say, Manila or Bucharest, couldn’t do.  Among other things, Libyan authorities got  a spreadsheet from a CNN email  account; it had a list of names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses of the network’s underground sources in Tripoli.

In the past few years, the surveillance capacities of intelligence bodies around the world have multiplied beyond imagination, thanks in part to surveillance technologies developed in the U.S. and Western Europe. But even without those technologies, governments in many countries have been able to count on the cooperation of telecoms companies who willingly release data on subscribers in exchange for leniency on their licensing and other requirements. Read the rest of this entry »


Keeping watchdogs safe 2: An engaged public is the ultimate line of defense

El Caminito, the cocaine transit route used by the Texis cartel in El Salvador, begins in the poor village of San Fernando in the province of Chalatenango. (Photo by Frederick Meza, courtesy of El Faro)

We live in a new world of news, writes Frank Smyth, senior security adviser to the Committee to Protect Journalists. “News organizations that publish primarily or entirely online are now in the thick of front-line, in-depth journalism.”

“With the attention,” he continues in an introduction to CPJ’s extremely helpful  Journalist Security Guide, “has come risk.”

Around the world, a new breed of news online-only news organizations has emerged. They do some of the most exciting and innovative watchdogging work. They are small, feisty, independent. They don’t compete in the breaking news arena but focus on holding the powerful to account. The Internet has given them a platform for disseminating their work and engaging their audiences. It has amplified their voices and given them influence and clout. But they are also vulnerable. Without the resources of large news organizations, they are mostly left on their own to fend off legal and security threats. Read the rest of this entry »


Keeping watchdogs safe1: Good reporting is the first line of defense

The story was told in the signature literary style of  El Faro, an independent online-only news site published in El Salvador. It was on the notorious Mara Salvatrucha gang,  which has left a trail of murder and mayhem in Central America, Mexico and the U.S.  It began like this:

El Muchacho received a call on his cell phone Friday morning. It came from the jail in Ciudad Barrios, to explain the new instructions from the Mara Salvatrucha: they would have to “calm down.” In the gang’s language, that amounted to saying that until further notice, there should be no killings and no new extortions.

We had arranged to meet El Muchacho at a shopping center. He’s in his 30s, and very slender. He’s the palabrero (leader) of a clica (cell) of the MS-13 gang. Orders received from the jail cannot be questioned, so he got his cell members together and gave them the message. “We’re on vacation,” he jokes, laughing as he says it.

The report went on to reveal a secret deal in which local gangs would pull back on killings in exchange for concessions from the government, including more lenient treatment for gang members currently in jail. The revelations shook El Salvador, a country reeling from gang violence as it emerged in the last few years as the new pathway for narcotics to enter the U.S.

 

Read the rest of this entry »


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