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This Week in Technology + Press Freedom: Jan. 26, 2020

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  1. Policy

Here’s what the staff of the Technology and Press Freedom Project at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is tracking this week.

Two high-profile international hacking cases require closer examination

Two major stories broke this week involving computer intrusions and the press. Since they are quite complex and have far-reaching implications, we’re working on deeper dives on the technology issues, law, and what to keep an eye out for as the stories develop.

First, on Tuesday, news outlets reported that a forensic analysis prepared for Amazon CEO and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos’ security team concluded that Bezos received possible malware from a WhatsApp account associated with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. The Saudi embassy denied the charge.

Also on Tuesday, Brazilian prosecutors made public a criminal complaint against Glenn Greenwald, an American journalist and co-founding editor of The Intercept, charging him with computer crimes based on his interactions with sources in his reporting about possible corruption. The Reporters Committee joined a letter signed by 40 press freedom organizations opposing the charges, and released a statement here.

— Gabe Rottman

Quick Hits

Newsgathering and Access

Senate officials last week finalized the controversial press restrictions imposed during the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate security officials, without addressing the concerns raised in a Jan. 14 letter from the Standing Committee of Correspondents and the Reporters Committee’s recent letter on behalf of news organizations to Senate leadership, U.S. Capitol police, and the Senate Sergeant at Arms. The Reporters Committee has collected responses and tweets documenting how the restrictions are playing out during the proceedings.

Following reporting by Motherboard that a “secretive” U.S. government vendor had been marketing hidden cameras that appeared to be ordinary objects (such as vacuum cleaners and tombstones), the vendor threatened to sue the tech publication. Gizmodo reported that the Special Services Group (the vendor, not a government agency) warned Motherboard not to disclose documents obtained through public records requests, claiming one document — a brochure listing the products — is protected under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, commonly known as ITAR, which regulates the export of defense technologies.

The Center for Democracy and Technology, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Open Technology Institute filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Nathan Van Buren’s petition for writ of certiorari asking the U.S. Supreme Court to clarify the meaning of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The brief explained that inconsistent judicial interpretations of the act have led to confusion and a chill on research. We have previously detailed how problematic interpretations of the CFAA could harm journalists who engage in web scraping, while misuse of the law against the media can harm reporting.

Privacy and Surveillance

The New York Times’ Privacy Project highlighted the rise of a little-known facial recognition technology company that has scraped billions of pictures from social media and other websites to permit clients — including law enforcement and private sector companies — to match faces to online images. The Times’ investigation into the company, called Clearview AI, ironically exposed the implications for journalists. When an officer searched for the Times reporter’s face in the database (at the request of the reporter), Clearview reached out to the relevant police department asking if they were in touch with the media.

Last week’s flurry of documents from House impeachment investigators included text messages between Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, and his associate Lev Parnas (now indicted on campaign finance charges) detailing their efforts to apparently monitor and eventually oust Ukraine ambassador Marie Yovanovitch. Those messages, according to Vice’s Motherboard, were organized into a report by Israeli phone forensics firm Cellebrite, whose software can extract more than just messages, including “calendar entries, call logs, contacts,” and “deleted information.”

Content Restrictions

In a wide-ranging interview with the New York Times’ editorial board, former Vice President Joe Biden called for the immediate revocation of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which allows online hosts of third-party content to moderate that content without being treated legally as the publisher. (Section 230 was passed because early third-party content hosts were being sued for, for instance, taking down some allegedly defamatory content while leaving other content up.) Citing Facebook’s policy of allowing all political ads, including those with known falsehoods, Biden called for an overhaul of Section 230.

Gif of the Week: The quick hits on hidden cameras and facial recognition have us wishing that someone can point out the locations of these surveillance devices.


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The Technology and Press Freedom Project at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press uses integrated advocacy — combining the law, policy analysis, and public education — to defend and promote press rights on issues at the intersection of technology and press freedom, such as reporter-source confidentiality protections, electronic surveillance law and policy, and content regulation online and in other media. TPFP is directed by Reporters Committee Attorney Gabe Rottman. He works with Stanton Foundation National Security/Free Press Fellow Linda Moon and Legal Fellows Jordan Murov-Goodman and Lyndsey Wajert.