International journalists in China have had their email accounts hacked, say numerous reports. But are emails in any country safe from surveillance?


“International journalists in China said Monday their Google e-mail
accounts have been hacked in attacks similar to the ones against human
rights activists that the search giant cited as a reason for
considering pulling out of the country,” reported the Associated Press.
“The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (warned) that reporters in
at least two news bureaus in Beijing said their Gmail accounts had been
broken into, with their e-mails surreptitiously forwarded to unfamiliar
accounts.”

Is anyone — any journalist especially — surprised
at allegations that email snooping goes on in China? Does anyone think
it doesn’t happen elsewhere? Psst: wanna buy a bridge?

Other
countries have surveillance systems not unlike China’s — but
democracies can claim a degree of democratic consent for making them
legal. BBC columnist Bill Thompson wrote
this month: “Of course liberal
democracies do the same, passing laws like the US Patriot Act or our
own Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act that legalise interception
and provide a framework for spying and snooping.”

The
U.S. Patriot Act allows some authorities to access any information from
an American company — and makes it illegal for the company to even inform its
clients that their data has been exposed. In theory, the Patriot Act
lays open all electronic records or emails — and if we journalists
think our confidential sources, contact information and story notes are
exempt, we’re naive. Nobody, imo, should use a gmail address to
communicate with controversial sources.

As posted in Townhall
previously, that concern was one reason I stopped using a mac.com email
address, registered my own domain and transferred it to a Canadian
host, years ago. (I was writing about American military deserters at
the time.) I still use an American service for some things — but never
confidential sources or data. I don’t fool myself that my stuff is of
interest, or that Canadian, commercial or foreign interests can’t or
won’t snoop — but at least now it ain’t legal.

This 2008 Globe and Mail story
about Lakehead University using Google shed light on the Patriot Act
problem for  academic digital integrity. This month James Turk of of
the Canadian Association of University Teachers told the Edmonton Journal
—  the University of Alberta is considering using Google — that
American officials could monitor faculty e-mails if there is a
suspicion of domestic terrorism. Excerpt:

‘”All of our work as
academics depends on the ability to convey our views without fear of
punishment or retribution,” said Turk. “I want to have the freedom to
say what I think needs to be said without having to look over my
shoulder and fear my wording might bring me to the attention of the
FBI.”‘

What worries academics should also worry journalists.

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