Credit: Image from Pixabay

The threat of mass surveillance on reporting, particularly work of an investigative nature, may "all but eliminate" confidential sources and the value they bring to journalism.

This is one of the conclusion presented in a new academic research paper, "No more sources? The impact of Snowden's revelations on journalists and their confidential sources", published on 24 May and authored by Paul Lashmar, journalist and senior lecturer at University of Sussex.

Lashmar's research draws upon relevant literature and interviews with twelve journalists with decades of experience in reporting and investigating national security issues in the member countries of Five Eyes, the intelligence alliance comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States and their respective intelligence agencies.

The paper aims to determine how government mass surveillance is affecting journalists' ability to establish and maintain sources and how their approach to this practice has changed following Edward Snowden's revelations in 2013.

Lashmar distinguished an important difference between the concept of anonymous sources and that of confidential sources, both of which are frequently featured in journalists' work.

He explained the key factor is the level of authority a source has to speak to a reporter – an official source from within an organisation may agree to be quoted in a story on condition of anonymity, but they can also provide information without permission, which is where a condition of total confidentiality is required of the journalist.

While mass surveillance ought to be a concern for all journalists, he pointed out investigative reporters are the "journalist sub-group who are most likely to be affected by the advanced government/intelligence agency capability to identify sources".

According to figures from a 2015 Pew Research Center Study on investigative journalists and digital security cited by Lashmar, about two-thirds or 64 per cent of those surveyed believed the US government had "probably collected data about their phone calls, emails or online communications, and eight in ten believe that being a journalist increases the likelihood that their data will be collected."

All twelve journalists interviewed by the author said they were aware of intelligence agencies' ability to monitor their activities. However, Lashmar found they were "astonished by the quantity of data that is being taken by the Five Eyes agencies", but also that this information is being "stored and preserved for analysis and as potential evidence for seeking warrants and indictments".

One of the interviewees, Christopher Hird, former managing editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the UK, said it is important for journalists to acknowledge it is easier for them to be monitored in the digital world.

"You have to work on the assumption that if the authorities decide to take an interest in you, they will be able to discover nearly anything you are up to, who you are meeting, what research you are doing, who you are talking to and what your networks are," Hird told Lashmar.

From his interview with Hird, the author also found that the way in which journalists would react to being approached by a whistleblower has also changed.

"Instead of arranging to meet that person, the first thing you have to do is seek legal advice to find out whether they are in danger of breaching their contract and whether you are at risk of commissioning a criminal act," Lashmar wrote in his study.

Scott Shane, national security reporter for The New York Times, explained in the paper how American officials approach to tracking down leakers can impact their role as journalistic sources.

in first instance, they would not look for primary evidence of direct communication between the source and the journalist, but for evidence of knowledge of the topic discussed as well as prior contact between the journalist and other employees of the same organisation, which can deter the source from coming forward due to fear of prosecution.

Freelance investigative journalist Duncan Campbell told Lashmar that journalists should have a better understanding of how the intelligence requirements for agencies are set for monitoring people's communications, as this will help provide a clearer idea of which journalists and sources are likely to be monitored.

Lashmar found that several of his interviewees questioned their ability to protect sources, even though they have implemented measures for enhancing secure communication, such as encryption.

Andrew Mitrovica, a Canadian investigative reporter, told the author that while he believed he could still protect sources, "there is no such thing as effective encryption".

According to Lashmar's findings, all journalists interviewed agreed that "Snowden's revelations would have a chilling effect on confidential sources speaking to journalists".

"It is also apparent that with the current levels of terrorism, the large swathes of the public of the Five Eyes countries are prepared to sacrifice some civil liberties, including press freedom, in return for a social contract that appears to offer greater security.

"Journalists need to be more outspoken about the impact of surveillance in preventing them from delivering their most important role, bringing to account government and the powerful when they are errant," Lashmar wrote.

'No more sources? The impact of Snowden's revelations on journalists and their confidential sources', can be purchased for £26 as an individual article or as part of the Journalism Practice journal, published online first on 24 May 2016.

Free daily newsletter

If you like our news and feature articles, you can sign up to receive our free daily (Mon-Fri) email newsletter (mobile friendly).