Wikileaks’ recent disclosure of the CIA’s hacking and surveillance capabilities highlights a frightening new reality for today’s journalists. Considering the CIA’s penchant for silencing and intimidating reporters and editors, journalists will have to overcome greater odds to protect the public’s right to know.
This threat is particularly concerning given that the U.S. government – particularly the CIA – has a documented penchant for silencing and intimidating journalists with whom they take issue. Encrypted messaging programs have been touted as a solution for journalistic privacy in the post-Snowden world. The messaging app Signal, in particular, has been endorsed by prominent journalists and even Snowden himself.
However, some journalists have noted that Signal and other similar apps do not necessarily protect those under targeted surveillance, a concerning fact given that journalists are more likely to be targeted than other members of the general public for surveillance.
Not only has “Vault 7” now proven that encrypted messaging apps have been compromised, it has also shown that the CIA’s hacking capabilities span nearly every type of telecommunications device available to consumers, including smartphones, tablets, personal computers and routers. In addition, the CIA is able to target everything from data and applications to operating systems and hardware, making no Internet-enabled consumer electronic device safe from CIA surveillance.
Among the CIA’s hacking tools detailed in the release was a tool that allows the CIA “to bypass the encryption of WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram, Wiebo, Confide and Cloackman [sic] by hacking the ‘smart’ phones that they run on and collecting audio and message traffic before encryption is applied.” Essentially, the tactics that many journalists have touted as effective in protecting their privacy are rendered powerless by the CIA
In addition, several prominent journalists have been silenced or imprisoned by the CIA or other parts of the U.S. power structure over the years. One very telling example is the case of Barrett Brown, a journalist and former member of the hacktivist collective Anonymous. Brown at one point faced a combined sentence of over 100 years just for writing about and linking to data that had been hacked. Brown was in no way involved in the hack, but his mere use of the hacked info as a source led him to be sentenced to over five years in prison.
While Brown’s politically-motivated prosecution is no doubt concerning, many other journalists have suffered much worse at the hands of the CIA and the U.S. government. One particularly notable case is that of late journalist Gary Webb, who famously exposed the CIA’s drug-running operation between Nicaraguan U.S.-funded rebels and crack dealers on the streets of Los Angeles.
Despite the fact that Webb’s claims have been vindicated in the years since, Webb was viciously attacked by the CIA and other news publications for his story, resulting in “one of the most venomous and factually inane assaults on a professional journalist’s competence in living memory.”
Webb committed suicide in 2004 as a result of the vicious attacks against him, though some have maintained that foul play may have played a role, considering that early reports indicated that he died of multiple gunshots to the face. Other well-known journalists like Michael Hastings and Udo Ulfkotte are also suspected to have died at the hands of the CIA after exposing the agency’s wrongdoings.