Dear Journalists: Everyone Is Spying On You

It's not right, but it's happening.

The Department of Justice admitted to spying on the Associated Press last year after a it published a series of stories the agency didn't like. Image: White House Press Photo

Attention journalists: You have been or are going to be spied on. By the government, by the companies you cover, by everyone.

That’s probably already obvious, based on reports of the Justice Department snooping on the Associated Press last year and Microsoft’s recent admission that it spied on a journalist’s Hotmail account in an attempt to find the source of an internal leak. But just in case, here’s some more fuel for the fire: Most of the world’s top news organizations have been the target of state-sponsored hacking, according to Google research reported on by Reuters.

The paper, which found that 21 of the world’s top 25 news organizations had been targeted, was presented at a Black Hat hackers conference in Singapore. 

Many internet users are targeted by attacks via email designed to steal personal data, but journalists are a "massively over-represented" segment, Shane Huntley, a security software engineer at Google told Reuters. "If you're a journalist or a journalistic organization we will see state-sponsored targeting and we see it happening regardless of region, we see it from all over the world both from where the targets are and where the targets are from."

It’s disconcerting, but it isn’t surprising. If journalists are supposed to be a government watchdog, it makes sense that the government wants to know which houses those dogs are guarding so they can know when a shitstorm is brewing. That doesn’t make it any less messed up, potentially illegal, and free speech-killing.

And it's not just the government. If Microsoft is spying on you and Yahoo, Google, and Apple reserve the right to spy on you, it's safe to assume whoever you're covering (if you're really covering them, and not just regurgitating press releases) is going to enjoy having something on you. If you piss off the wrong people you are going to get doxxed. It's not a nice thought, but, at the moment, it's the reality of the business.

Journalists generally are already accustomed to low pay, long hours, weak job security, comment trolls, and an unrelenting news cycle. Some even go to jail protecting sources or risk their lives covering conflict. Now we can add targeted government surveillance to that fun list. And for some people, finding yourself the target of some government or corporate blackmail campaign because an intelligence agency or Microsoft found out you’re cheating on your girlfriend could be a bridge too far. 

Here in the United States, we have a pretty incredible amount of legal protections from things like libel and slander and leaking documents and talking shit about people who deserve it. That is an amazing thing that many, many people (journalist or not) around the world would love to have. But it's worth asking, is there really a “free press” when the press knows their personal lives are being targeted by everyone they write about?