Germany's latest attempt at circumventing the European Union's data privacy law is facing harsh criticism from journalism organizations worldwide. Investigative reporting heavily relies on sources and anonymity.
German journalists are facing a governmental proposal that allows telecommunications companies, social networking sites, and online messaging services to deliver private data from sources over demands of national security. And it’s not the first time.
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Banding together are the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), Deutscher Journalisten-Verband (DJV) and Deutsche Journalistinnen- und Journalisten-Union. According to the International Freedom of Expression Exchange, the three associations believe a lack of anonymity will change the journalistic landscape. Shield laws are vital in maintaining the integrity of watchdog organizations and factual evidence in journalism.
DJV’s Chairman Michael Konken reasons “if the draft law is adopted, it will make the work of journalists impossible.” He also recognizes “the latest decision of the European Court of Justice that data retention law as such violates the rights of professional secrecy and privacy.” Google faces the European system regularly about data privacy, so the precedence of review is already in effect.
In 2007, Spiegel Online facetiously noted "sources might be better off furtively intercepting reporters on their way home, writing letters, or sending smoke signals." By forcing journalists to identify sources and data, the government effectively eliminates any balance of power and citizen review. Of course, the irony here is the fact the recently-hacked Bundestag is the one demanding tighter security.
Earlier this week a spokeswoman for the government body confirmed the hack into the internal servers several weeks ago included unspecified "scattered data outflows", reports Deutsche Welle. The media company also points out that Spiegel previously stated IT experts noticed attempts before the successful attack, showing a lack of security and data safety. And more computers have been infected than initially thought.
So the fact the government body is demanding accountability may indicate a deflection of responsibility on a governmental level. The current proposal demands "internet service providers will be obliged to store call and Internet traffic metadata for a maximum of 10 weeks while location data would have to be stored for four weeks," says IFEX. As Konken pointed out, collection of data is against the EU’s recently challenged privacy protection laws.
“This principle cannot be maintained by giving vague exceptions for journalists, lawyers, doctors and attorneys, but only by preventing the use of storage of any communication data,” says Konken. Additionally, the provisions of professional anonymity leaves little wiggle room since the work would still be available for governmental review.
The Society of Professional Journalists has a few guidelines on trusting and verifying anonymous source data. One major point of journalistic credibility is to question the source's motives and clarify the terms before the interview begins, then keep the promises. Don't overpromise because issues may arise legally, including national security.
Many professionals use programs like SecureDrop, a whistleblower platform that minimizes metadata. In other words, these interactions are harder to trace—not impossible for governmental agencies, though. By turning Tor and multiple other services into a single platform, an anonymous source is able securely communicate via a codename that offers no identifiers but allows the uploading of documents for review.
However, at over $2200 for the setup, only big new organizations can typically purchase the product. That leaves many smaller journalists, like freelancers or small presses, at a disadvantage in the world of government demanding for sources.
For journalists, anonymous sources can be helpful, but use them appropriately. Dig deeper and see if the story can be used with a named source, remarks the SPJ. Always identify credentials, such as "a source at the Willingham police revealed John Carrington broke his hip during a fight with guards."
Don’t reveal any specific information but make sure credibility indicts direct account on some level, an act that will be harder to follow if the German government approves this bill. Gossip only hurts a story.
"Journalists are often affected by the data collecting mania of the government," said Franke Wernerke, deputy chairman of ver.di. "The possibility that journalists can face criminal prosecution because they are accused of processing 'stolen' or 'illegal' data poses a serious threat to investigative journalism."
Investigative journalism is at the heart of implementing a checks and balance system for both journalist and subject. The ability for journalists to use sources leads to bigger sources, more encompassing stories. It's not just Watergate's "Deep Throat." Politico documented the Senate Judiciary Committee’s vote on federal journalist/media shield laws in 2013. While opening up the definition, the American limitations leave many of the smaller presses and freelancers without protection.
Across the world, journalists face harsh criticism for not backing down from hard-hitting stories, including trials and prison sentences. Offering to take away the protection of sources through secure measures, even if shallow due to budgetary constraints, means that investigative reporting will not be nearly as developed or accurate.
No one will run to a media organization for a potentially breaking, wide-reaching story if their name is potentially on a watch list because of criticism. And Germany’s latest attempt seems at odds for a country purporting open, transparent communication after the NSA scandal last year and recently revealed the cooperation of the BND.
UN Special Rapporteur David Kaye's report on Germany specifically addresses the fact "public and private bodies which collect, process or use personal data themselves or on behalf of others are required to carry out the technical and organizational measures necessary to ensure effective control over access and transfer of personal data."
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The lengthy but thorough document on encryption, human rights, and anonymity breaks down national state information. If Kaye's data and research is true, how will the government and private businesses go reach a worthwhile and feasible goal that meets EU standards, data privacy, and not prosecute based on obtained data?