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#IPIWoCo Recap: The chilling effect of surveillance on journalism | #childpredator | #onlinepredator | #sextrafficing

COVID-era technologies are among those used to track the work of the press around the world

IPI Contributor Katherine Dailey

Jun 16, 2023

Surveillance technologies of all kinds — from facial recognition cameras to spyware technology — are increasingly being used to target journalists around the world. Speakers at the IPI World Congress panel titled “Journalism and surveillance: A brave new world” explained how these technologies threaten freedom of the press, and how journalists can protect themselves.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to a wide variety of new tracking technologies, intended to curb the spread of the virus – but which have since been used for other purposes. In Israel, for example, technology that had been used for contact tracing was also used to send threatening messages to those allegedly involved in “acts of violence,” a global investigative project by the Associated Press showed.

“It’s particularly important to look for disparate impacts”, Garance Burke, who led the AP project, said, highlighting the disproportionate effect of facial recognition on Muslims in India as an example.

Journalists are among the groups at risk as surveillance technologies evolve. Facial recognition cameras have already been used to target journalists in Russia, for instance. Digital privacy, too, is coming under threat, with governments and other actors undermining tools journalists and their sources rely on to stay safe.

Callum Voge, director of government affairs and advocacy at the Internet Society, spoke to the importance of maintaining access to encrypted messaging, especially end-to-end encryption, which helps protect the privacy of journalists and their sources. New bills in various parts of the world, however, are aiming to end or weaken encryption, often with the stated goal of preventing child sexual abuse. While some governments have pushed for so-called client-side scanning — where an app would scan messages for illegal content before they are encrypted — as a possible solution, Voge said the proposal would “nullify the purpose of encryption” and would open the door to censorship.

“The thing we can all do is report on these bills and I think here the really important thing is raising awareness”, Voge said in urging participants to push back against bills like those being considered in the U.S., the UK, and the EU.

Yet even as these proposals are being debated, governments and other actors are also weaponizing spyware to circumvent encryption.

In early 2022, Eliza Triantafillou and her team at Inside Story in Greece revealed that several journalists had been surveilled with a spyware technology known as Predator, which “turns your mobile phone into a perfect spy”, she said. “It can turn on and off your microphone, your camera, has access to and can extract all the content of your mobile device like files, contacts, photographs, and also has direct access to your communications, even those conducted through encrypted applications.”

Predator shares many similarities to Pegasus spyware, which has been used to target journalists, including Carlos Dada and Carmen Aristegui, IPI’s 2022 and 2023 World Press Freedom Heroes, respectively.

Triantafillou’s investigation also found that journalists had also been subject to more traditional wiretapping surveillance through telecoms providers on the basis of “national security” concerns — a justification that has also been used in other countries, such as Serbia, to roll-out mass surveillance tools.

Nevena Krivokapić, the coordinator for freedom of expression & online media at the SHARE Foundation, recalled how Serbia’s interior minister defended the installation of facial-recognition cameras on the streets of Belgrade by claiming that there “won’t be a perpetrator that can’t be found”. Her team mapped over a thousand cameras in Belgrade, and works to explain the effect of this surveillance on everyday life. The effects are more pronounced for some, she added, “It also will provide a chilling effect on everybody, especially on journalists.”

The equipment, Krivokapić continued, was all bought from Huawei, a Chinese tech company. “We don’t know if and when that system is going to be put in use, all that amount of the data — where it will be stored and who will have access to it. I’m not sure that our government has the capacity to deal with that amount of data,” she said, “But if all of our data is being exported to China, that’s really problematic.”

Asked by moderator Scott Griffen, IPI’s deputy director, whether the surveillance genie can be put back in the bottle, Krivokapić said the best hope was to mitigate the potential damage to human rights. “I think we should push hard every time, on the smallest things, because as long as we can push it will give us more time to explore, to see the misuses [of surveillance]”, she said.

The 2023 IPI World Congress panel on surveillance and journalism was supported with funding from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF).

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