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Technology making protection of sources more difficult for journalists, says new report

Technology is making it more difficult for journalists to protect their sources, according to a new study.

The study, carried out by the Information Law and Policy Centre at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies within the University of London, found that "technological protections for sources have not kept pace with the ability of states and other actors to use technology to intercept or monitor communications".

The study report was authored by media law academics Dr Judith Townend and Dr Richard Danbury. They said the UK's communications surveillance regime should provide guarantees over the anonymity of journalists' sources in line with "the UK’s international human rights obligations" and provide for judicial oversight on that issue.

The Digital Economy Bill, currently being scrutinised by the UK parliament, should also ensure that "disclosures by whistleblowers operating in the public interest" are not criminalised, they said in their report, 'Protecting Sources and Whistleblowers in a Digital Age' (24-page / 425KB PDF).

In an update to their report (2-page / 357KB PDF), the authors also said that planned new laws on official data, official secrets and espionage, recently proposed by the Law Commission, should protect journalists and whistleblowers who "disclose information in the public interest".

The report highlighted the "moral imperative" journalists have to "protect confidential sources", but said that this has become more difficult due to changes in technology.

"Increasingly, journalists have become aware that any digital or other direct contact with a source who wishes to remain anonymous can make keeping a promise of confidentiality very difficult; it may not be practically possible given the technical tools and legal powers available to police and other authorities," the report said.

"These difficulties have been brought into stark focus during contemporary debates about surveillance in the UK. Journalistic sources, and journalists, are increasingly vulnerable to being identified by state agencies and other actors," it said.

The issue of "digital footprints" was particularly identified in the report as a problem which might lead to the identification of sources, noting discussions held by investigative journalists, representatives from relevant NGOs and media organisations, media lawyers and specialist researchers at a meeting convened in September last year by the Information Law and Policy Centre.

"At a very basic level, questions were raised about the safety of secure online drop-box type systems that have been introduced by some organisations," the report said. "Digital footprints were inevitable. Furthermore, one might not be aware of the full digital trail if intermediaries were involved. Jigsaw identification via several pieces of information was a possibility."

"Anonymous secure drop-box systems posed their own problems, it was said. They make it impossible, or very difficult, to assess the motivations and provenance of material derived from them. That means it is difficult for a responsible investigative journalist to use the material delivered by them," it said.

The report recommended that news organisations "review and strengthen policies on secure technology, source care and protection", review how journalists interact with sources that wish to remain anonymous, and offer training that explains the "practicalities and limitations of source care and protection" to both journalists and their sources.

Among its other recommendations, the report said NGOs should "produce a public log of cases where source protection is breached, and in what ways".

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