Burriss on Media: DoJ & Phone Records

May 20, 2013

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (WMOT)  --  Somehow I thought we were done with various government agencies secretly accessing reporters’ phone records, but apparently not. As we learned last week, the Justice Department covertly seized information about the phone calls of some 20 news organizations. The records, by the way, were not obtained from the media organizations themselves, but from various phone companies.

The government alleges it needs the records in an effort to track down the source of an Associated Press story about terrorism. This, despite the fact that there are numerous guidelines in place detailing how and when the government has a limited right to such information.

Now, I’m willing to concede there may be some circumstances under which the government may need access to reporters’ phone records. But such conditions need to be explained with more than a generic reference to “national security.”

But here’s an interesting development that has received relatively little notice, but which will have an impact on how the government can track down the sources of news stories: While the Department of Justice was having little trouble getting access to the phone records, The New Yorker has apparently developed a hack-proof system that will allow sources to submit information to the magazine, and be completely anonymous at the same time.

To be sure, at this point the system is fairly cumbersome, and involves nine steps using an anonymity network, encryption, multiple computers, some of which are isolated from the Internet, and at least two thumb drives.

For years there has been something of an arms race between developers of encryption programs, and the government, in trying to break those programs. Now, in the wake of the latest government intrusion, it appears news organizations have a new tool to try to protect their sources, and by extension the ability of people to know what their government is doing.

I’m Larry Burriss.