Safeguarding press freedom requires working in the darknet’s shadows

In an era of mass digital surveillance, journalists and their sources need to use every tool they can to protect the public interest
Photo: Ikhlasul Amal
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Virtual black markets, cryptocurrency scams, digital hideouts for hackers and pedophiles. These are the images that the darknet tends to conjure in the popular imagination. But the darknet is more than a secret space for illicit activity. It is also a digital frontier that provides refuge for imperilled reporters and their sources.

Over 600 journalists have been killed in the last six years. Hundreds more are imprisoned every day. Turkey alone has jailed 275 journalists since 2016.

As the crackdown on freedom of the press escalates, journalists across the globe and the organizations that employ them should consider using the darknet to protect themselves, defend sources, and bypass firewalls.

Getting around repressive regimes

In response to government-led mass surveillance programs, media organizations have begun to reach out to audiences who risk being targeted for accessing news sites in countries with repressive regimes. In 2016, ProPublica launched its hidden site — a mirror of its clearnet site — to reach Chinese readers beyond the Great Firewall. In 2019, the BBC followed suit to reach audiences in China, Vietnam and Iran. With Tor, an encrypted darknet browser, users can anonymously access uncensored information.

When search engines like Google are blocked and users are limited to a few state-backed search engines like China's Baidu — which draws blanks for the Tiananmen Square protests, for example — the public is misled and this denial of information thwarts the possibility of democratic embers catching alight.

Reporters Without Borders recommends Tor for journalists and sources working within repressive regimes. During the Arab Spring, journalists used Tor to skirtcensorship by the Egyptian regime and smuggle protest and riot coverage out of the country to the international press. In these situations, Tor becomes a lifeline, not a privilege. Without darknet encrypted communications, journalists and sources operating in repressive areas risk censorship, violent reprisal or imprisonment.

Other darknet tools like SecureDrop allowed for an anonymous whistleblower to provide a German newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, with the 11.5 million leaked documents from an offshore Panamanian law firm that exposed worldwide tax evasion, fraud and other criminal activities by the rich and powerful.

In fact, a growing list of media outlets including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, CBC, and the Globe and Mail now accept anonymous information and materials via SecureDrop on their Tor site pages.

Journalists vs. Canadian authorities

But reporting through the darknet should not be limited to distant lands with chequered human rights records. Though Canadian journalists are not silenced by targeted violence, they are increasingly being monitored by authorities and in some cases harassed to give up sources.

Alain Gravel, the Radio-Canada journalist whose work paved the way for the Charbonneau Commission, was one of six journalists whose telephone records were monitored by Quebec’s provincial police. Many of his sources feared for their jobs, reputations and lives.

In order to identify a source, Montreal police tracked La Presse columnist Patrick Lagacé’s whereabouts via the GPS chip in his iPhone. They also gained access to his metadata, phone records and text messages.

So long as journalism remains under fire and laws fail to defend it, the reporters and sources who inform the public may have to take cover in the digital frontier of the darknet

In 2019, Vice News reporter Ben Makuch lost a four-year fight with the RCMP. He refused to hand over the private notes and instant-messaging chat logs he had used to write three stories in 2014. Both the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court of Canada ruled against Vice and the media outlet gave in. Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and Reporters Without Borders have sounded off on the sweeping powers afforded by Bill C-59, which could allow for surveillance programs to intercept communications between journalists and sources, alter documents used by journalists, and disrupt encryption tools that journalists rely on to shield them and their sources from danger.

Why shouldn’t the Canadian press protect itself with the same tools that work abroad? Greater use of darknet services may help safeguard journalism here at home. The public loses when the ability of the press to investigate and protect source confidentiality is eroded by opportunistic interpretations of national security.

There are, however, signs that the crackdown may be easing. Marie-Maude Denis, a journalist at Radio-Canada, scored a victory for press freedom in 2019 when the Supreme Court ruled that she did not have to give up her source in a story investigating a Member of Parliament charged with bribery and fraud.

Protecting whistleblowers

Skeptics raise questions about the reliability of anonymous darknet sources, but as with any source at risk of personal danger, the media must verify the accuracy of the information provided and protect source confidentiality. The identity of the Panama Papers whistleblower remains unknown, even to the 300 reporters who corroborated and broke the story.

What about publishing classified documents? Leaks in some jurisdictions may be considered illegal or treasonous. In the United States, Edward Snowden was charged under the Espionage Act. But while the scale of leaks like those from Snowden are great, the same questions apply to the world outside of the digital sphere: does the public have the right to know?

The Tor Project calls itself a volunteer organization dedicated to advancing human rights and protecting against mass surveillance. But the darknet may not be for the faint of heart. The existence of illicit content — whether violent or pornographic — is undeniable, though the prevalence of unethical content is up for debate and has not been widely studied. The same anonymity that fosters democratic engagement likewise conceals the identity of unethical individuals and groups.

So long as journalism remains under fire and laws fail to defend it, the reporters and sources who inform the public may have to take cover in the digital frontier of the darknet — at least until adequate measures are taken to protect press access, privacy and the means to investigate. Maybe then the mainstream web will fulfill its promise of becoming a digital commons, one that recaptures the optimism of the 1990s when netizens from across the planet gained access to the World Wide Web. Otherwise, journalists will continue to be muzzled, and sources of information will dry up, truly leaving the press in the dark.

Joe is a freelance journalist, award-winning fiction author, and former high school teacher. He has contributed to news publications including The Montreal Gazette, The National Observer, and CBC.

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