ORGCon14 that took place on the 15th – 16th November 2014 saw many presentations being given, some at concurrent times, making it a difficult choice for visitors to select which intriguing talk to be part of. As part of our ORGCon14 round up we had the opportunity to listen in to the 11am talk about the UK and how Surveillance, Whistle Blowing and Free Speech are hot topics of discussion.
The panel was chaired by Pam Cowburn, the communications director of the Open Rights Group.
Panellists included Duncan Campbell an investigative journalist. Rachel Oldroyd from the bureau of investigative journalism and Jodie Ginsberg the chief executive of Index on Censorship.
The discussion took the usual panel type format which followed suit through all of the ORGCon14 talks. Cowburn opened questioning while the panel discussed in length their various topics and obvious areas of expertise.
The general gist of the talk was centred around the issue of the MET police accessing the Sun Newspapers, Political Editor, phone records. This was rather controversial with the use of the RIPA terrorism laws being used to make such access.
Without RIPA it was explained that usually a judge would be required to gain such access but via RIPA it was possible to get internal approval, or “sign off” for such a practise to take place. An obvious abuse of such laws, or a possible real intended use for them.
With this in mind the panel discussed how such laws and abuse of laws affects free speech for the press in the United Kingdom and if that is now at threat because of the tactics employed by the MET police and other forces around the UK.
Rachel Oldroyd kicked of discussion explaining that her organisation have taken the government to the European Court of Human Rights. She went on to state that due to the revelations, journalists can no longer offer anonymity to their sources, especially in a post-snowden era. Due to the known capabilities of the authorities to surveil us, it would be wrong to offer sources anonymity.
Cowburn questioned Duncan Campbell on how being the victim of surveillance has impacted on his ability to have free speech. He explained that having his house raided three times has a “chilling effect”, it deters people from wanting to speak freely and also whistle blowers. Part of the surveillance he was under included having his phone tapped and being physically followed around.
Although we have learnt a huge amount from the Snowden revelations, Campbell touched on the fact that changes in technology have been underway for 30 years and have always been a threat to journalistic sources. These changes were being implemented long before we had heard of Al Qaeda. Although we sometimes assume they were the triggers for such surveillance, this is not the case.
Technology has enabled such changes and they started when our phone devices started to record our call data, or metadata. To do the job they are set up to do, GCHQ need data at scale and network analysis is done automatically.
Jodie Ginsberg continued the discussion on the same question raising the point that we are in a crisis of free expression globally and that the UK has been slow to wake up to the threats against press freedoms.
She touched on how she is shocked about the coverage the Snowden revelations have received in the UK and only certain small communities seem to be greatly concerned about what they mean for the public as a whole. With stories fading away quickly and the issue with legislation in the UK meant for terrorism being used in the case of accessing the Sun journalists phone records.
She continued stating that every editor and every journalists needs to be aware of the dangers that mass surveillance present and that we as a whole need better education of the risks and must make better use of digital tools to protect journalists sources.
Rather than being an issue for a select group, Ginsberg highlighted that it was :-
“Seen as a sort of special interest, conspiracy theorists, madness, when actually it has huge implications for all of us as individuals”
An intriguing question was put by Pam Cowburn to the panel in which she asked, Do journalists care about the surveillance of just journalists, or everybody?
It was noted that journalists are quite a self interested group but not more so than any other industry. A good place to start is that journalists are thinking how they’re protecting themselves.
Rachel Oldroyd continued the discussion stating that journalists are hung up on what happened to themselves with the police and that no one outside of The Guardian that published the Snowden stories have started talking about GCHQ and the security services.
There has still been no debate about if security services should collect our data on mass and analyse it or not.