This Side of the Pond – Jan. 30

By Sarah Pridgeon

I almost put my name forward for a second job last weekend – almost, but not quite. When a reporter from the Associated Press’s investigative team spoke to us at the Wyoming Press Association convention, he began with an announcement that there are two positions open in his Washington team and he’d be happy to accept our resumes.

For a moment, the rose-tinted glasses descended over my eyes. How exciting, I thought, to spend some of my days firing questions at our President and uncovering White House conspiracies through the simple observation of a piece of duct tape. How wonderful to be one of those reporters waving their tape recorders under the Press Secretary’s nose as the briefing room erupts over the latest foiled terrorist attack.

But my mind ceased to wander as he continued with his speech. Several months ago, he said, he arrived at his desk to find an ominous email that had no content other than an attachment and a subject line that said, “Correspondence.” It was from the Justice Department, who had subpoenaed – and already retrieved – every last phone record over the previous two months – including from personal and cell phones.

Apparently, nobody is entirely sure why such a sweeping measure was taken, but it appears to be linked to an investigation into classified information about a failed al-Qaeda plot that was disclosed in 2012. The idea of being a part of that reporting team seemed rather less romantic as I considered the concept of government ninjas poring over text messages urging my husband to remember to buy cheese.

He wasn’t finished with his pitch, either. Things have been getting steadily worse as far as information sharing goes since the Bush administration, it seems, and it’s now almost impossible for journalists to safely do their job. The subpoena was far from the only tactic being used to keep an eye on what the AP was up to.

Suddenly, the sources that the AP usually rely on for information could no longer be sure of their anonymity and were no longer willing to speak to reporters. They were named and shamed when they did so and one poor chap had to endure a court case simply to keep his job.

The government overlords are still watching over everything that the AP investigative team is doing, months after the unexpected subpoena. Their reporters are now trained to understand when and where they can be tracked and watched, whether it’s through use of a credit card or swiping a door to gain access. They have grown used to the idea that every move they make is probably being recorded somewhere, somehow, and that every piece of communication that they send or receive is subject to eavesdropping.

Terrifying, I thought, as I glanced worriedly at my Facebook page. I have no idea how an invitation to play Candy Crush might be used against me, but I’m not all that invested in finding out.

So how do they go about speaking with contacts these days in the honorable pursuit of keeping the public informed? The answer is about as close to Hollywood as you can get without writing a script.

Were you to visit Washington today and offer a reporter some juicy information, he would first hand you a USB drive. On that drive you would find fancy protocols that would allow you to encrypt your communications as they flew across the ether.

The government will still intercept and store them, said our speaker, on the off-chance that they can one day be interpreted, but you will at least keep your job for the time being. If you would like to be extra cautious, you can also ask that reporter for technology that will cause your documents to self-destruct once they have been read.

It’s not just happening in the United States, either. Our speaker told us of an event during which The Guardian newspaper in London found its offices emptied of documentation to do with the notorious Edward Snowden. They were forced to comply with a government demand that all computer hardware containing the files be destroyed.

The only remaining copies of these documents, said our speaker, are housed in the basement of two American newspapers, safe from judging eyes. With the wisdom of foresight, Guardian staff apparently saw the event coming and took what precautions they could.

As our speaker ended his story, the room was conspicuously silent but for the clinking of glass as our waiters cleared the tables. Looking at my fellow journalists, I noticed that one of those waiters should have been directed to retrieve as many jaws as possible from the carpet.

One of the dinner guests raised a hand to ask our speaker what it’s like to go home at the end of the day, knowing that sinister figures are tracking their every move from the shadows. “Intimidating,” he shrugged, as I tore up my resume under the table.

The lesson I took away from this surprising presentation was that I am very lucky indeed to be living and working in Crook County, where our elected officials share a common goal to keep the public informed. I can’t quite imagine our council members lurking in the hedgerow clutching a listening device and I’m fairly sure that the Sheriff’s Office has better things to do than read email updates on my niece’s ability to eat mashed potato.

For the most part, I believe we all understand that a knowledgeable community is a powerful community and that the cogs run more smoothly when kept visible – and what a reassuring lesson that is. National security is a vital consideration, but public knowledge is equally important.

As mindsets like this one do tend to trickle down, we might one day find ourselves in a situation where Crook County’s reporters carry encryption keys in their handbags, but somehow I don’t see it sticking. I won’t be submitting my resume to Washington, but I do believe I can safely continue to share the day’s happenings without worrying about my own health and safety. Even so, please be advised that this column is set to self-destruct in 60 seconds.