05:14
TED2016

Trevor Timm: How free is our freedom of the press?

Filmed:

In the US, the press has a right to publish secret information the public needs to know, protected by the First Amendment. Government surveillance has made it increasingly more dangerous for whistleblowers, the source of virtually every important story about national security since 9/11, to share information. In this concise, informative talk, Freedom of the Press Foundation co-founder and TED Fellow Trevor Timm traces the recent history of government action against individuals who expose crime and injustice and advocates for technology that can help them do it safely and anonymously.

- Writer, activist and legal analyst
Trevor Timm is the co-founder and executive director of Freedom of the Press Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports and defends journalism dedicated to transparency and accountability. Full bio

So this is James Risen.
00:12
You may know him as the
Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter
00:15
for The New York Times.
00:17
Long before anybody knew
Edward Snowden's name,
00:19
Risen wrote a book in which
he famously exposed
00:22
that the NSA was illegally wiretapping
the phone calls of Americans.
00:25
But it's another chapter in that book
00:29
that may have an even more lasting impact.
00:31
In it, he describes a catastrophic
US intelligence operation
00:34
in which the CIA quite literally
handed over blueprints
00:39
of a nuclear bomb to Iran.
00:42
If that sounds crazy, go read it.
00:44
It's an incredible story.
00:46
But you know who didn't like that chapter?
00:48
The US government.
00:50
For nearly a decade afterwards,
00:52
Risen was the subject
of a US government investigation
00:54
in which prosecutors demanded
that he testify
00:58
against one of his alleged sources.
01:00
And along the way, he became the face
for the US government's recent pattern
01:02
of prosecuting whistleblowers
and spying on journalists.
01:06
You see, under the First Amendment,
01:10
the press has the right to publish
secret information in the public interest.
01:12
But it's impossible to exercise that right
if the media can't also gather that news
01:16
and protect the identities
of the brave men and women
01:21
who get it to them.
01:24
So when the government came knocking,
01:26
Risen did what many brave reporters
have done before him:
01:28
he refused
01:31
and said he'd rather go to jail.
01:32
So from 2007 to 2015,
01:34
Risen lived under the specter
of going to federal prison.
01:37
That is, until just days before the trial,
when a curious thing happened.
01:40
Suddenly, after years of claiming
it was vital to their case,
01:45
the government dropped their demands
to Risen altogether.
01:49
It turns out, in the age
of electronic surveillance,
01:52
there are very few places
reporters and sources can hide.
01:55
And instead of trying and failing
to have Risen testify,
01:58
they could have his digital trail
testify against him instead.
02:02
So completely in secret
and without his consent,
02:06
prosecutors got Risen's phone records.
02:09
They got his email records,
his financial and banking information,
02:11
his credit reports,
02:16
even travel records with a list
of flights he had taken.
02:18
And it was among this information that
they used to convict Jeffrey Sterling,
02:21
Risen's alleged source
and CIA whistleblower.
02:25
Sadly, this is only one case of many.
02:30
President Obama ran on a promise
to protect whistleblowers,
02:33
and instead, his Justice Department
has prosecuted more
02:36
than all other administrations combined.
02:40
Now, you can see how this
could be a problem,
02:43
especially because the government
considers so much of what it does secret.
02:45
Since 9/11, virtually every important
story about national security
02:50
has been the result of a whistleblower
coming to a journalist.
02:55
So we risk seeing the press
unable to do their job
02:58
that the First Amendment
is supposed to protect
03:01
because of the government's
expanded ability to spy on everyone.
03:03
But just as technology has allowed
the government
03:07
to circumvent reporters' rights,
03:09
the press can also use technology
03:12
to protect their sources
even better than before.
03:14
And they can start from the moment
they begin speaking with them,
03:17
rather than on the witness stand
after the fact.
03:20
Communications software now exists
03:24
that wasn't available
when Risen was writing his book,
03:26
and is much more surveillance-resistant
than regular emails or phone calls.
03:28
For example, one such tool is SecureDrop,
03:33
an open-source whistleblower
submission system
03:38
that was originally created by the late
Internet luminary Aaron Swartz,
03:40
and is now developed
at the non-profit where I work,
03:44
Freedom of the Press Foundation.
03:47
Instead of sending an email,
03:49
you go to a news organization's website,
03:51
like this one here on The Washington Post.
03:53
From there, you can upload a document
or send information
03:56
much like you would
on any other contact form.
03:59
It'll then be encrypted
and stored on a server
04:02
that only the news organization
has access to.
04:05
So the government can no longer
secretly demand the information,
04:08
and much of the information
they would demand
04:11
wouldn't be available in the first place.
04:13
SecureDrop, though, is really
only a small part of the puzzle
04:16
for protecting press freedom
in the 21st century.
04:19
Unfortunately, governments
all over the world
04:23
are constantly developing
new spying techniques
04:25
that put us all at risk.
04:27
And it's up to us going forward
to make sure
04:30
that it's not just
the tech-savvy whistleblowers,
04:32
like Edward Snowden, who have
an avenue for exposing wrongdoing.
04:35
It's just as vital that we protect the
next veteran's health care whistleblower
04:39
alerting us to overcrowded hospitals,
04:44
or the next environmental worker
04:47
sounding the alarm
about Flint's dirty water,
04:49
or a Wall Street insider
04:53
warning us of the next financial crisis.
04:54
After all, these tools weren't just built
to help the brave men and women
04:57
who expose crimes,
05:02
but are meant to protect
all of our rights under the Constitution.
05:03
Thank you.
05:07
(Applause)
05:08

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About the Speaker:

Trevor Timm - Writer, activist and legal analyst
Trevor Timm is the co-founder and executive director of Freedom of the Press Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports and defends journalism dedicated to transparency and accountability.

Why you should listen

Trevor Timm is a co-founder and the executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. He is a journalist, activist, and lawyer who writes a twice weekly column for The Guardian on privacy, free speech, and national security. He has contributed to The Atlantic, Al Jazeera, Foreign Policy, Harvard Law and Policy Review, PBS MediaShift and Politico.

Trevor formerly worked as an activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Before that, he helped the longtime General Counsel of The New York Times, James Goodale, write a book on the Pentagon Papers and the First Amendment. He received his J.D. from New York Law School.

More profile about the speaker
Trevor Timm | Speaker | TED.com