Archive for the ‘reporting’ Category

Just Trying To Do My Job In The Age of Surveillance

December 2nd, 2013 No Comments

Edward Snowden says encryption works but, after attending an evening about protecting your sources as an investigative journalist, it was pretty clear to me that encryption works only for those technically adept enough to get it up and running. And that journalist must be communicating with people who are also geeky and determined enough to do the same.

The presentation, which was sponsored by Hacks and Hackers, featured Parker Higgins, freedom of speech activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a place that knows better than most what the NSA is up to.

I approached the evening thinking that there I would find a solution to my journalism dilemma. I work with a number of sources who want to remain private but, in the age of universal surveillance, I can’t guarantee them that someone isn’t eavesdropping on us.

Parker said there were four basic tools journalists can use to shield themselves and their sources from surveillance, methods that will be encrypted, untraceable, verifiable, and private.

• OTR – secure instant messaging
• PGP/GPG – encrypted email
• TOR – anonymous browsing
• HTTPS – encrypts your communications with many websites

Each of them has advantages, and each has flaws.

With OTR, if both parties are using the protocol, the messages are encrypted, but the metadata (which shows who you communicated with and for how long) is still available. Therefore OTR doesn’t provide any deniability. This means it’s traceable and not really private.

With PGP/GPG communications are encrypted and secure, but again both parties must be using it and have exchanged encryption keys. One could download the encrypted message onto a thumb drive, move it to an air gap computer (one that has never been hooked up to the internet) and decrypt it using the key. But PGP/GPG is pretty hard to install, Parker said. If either partner fumbles any of the steps, the whole system won’t work.

TOR, in contrast, is simple to use and ensures that your communications ricochet around the globe eight or more times, thereby making them untraceable. The problem comes when these communications arrive at the destination. When they leave TOR and arrive in your correspondent’s computer, they are easily captured by whatever entity is watching you.

HTTPS is also an established and easy-to-use protocol, but it’s not always available and therefore you don’t always know if your communications remain private.

At the conclusion of his talk Parker said that if the government wants to get you, they’ll get you. You can use all these tools and tricks, but in the end, they have better tools available to them than you’ll be able to lay your hands on and have a big staff of skilled and determined specialists.

I left the evening understanding that I was looking for something that doesn’t exist: a secure communications bundle of software that I could install easily and provide to sources that would offer all of us freedom, security and anonymity. Parker said that doesn’t yet exist.

“If you want to get paranoid, you can get really paranoid,” he said.

I think most of us don’t want to be any more paranoid than we already are. We just want to be able to do our work and live our lives with a reasonable expectation of freedom, just like the constitution promises us we can.

Ah the constitution, that quaint little artifact of the pre-digital era.

Interviewing Kwame Harris

May 29th, 2013 No Comments




Kwame Harris said he needed to meet me before he’d agree to being featured in an article about his life as a gay player in the NFL for ESPN magazine.  Many journalists had contacted him after his preliminary hearing on domestic violence charges outed this former 49er in January, me among them. He’d turned them all down.


We met at Four Barrel Coffee on Valencia Street in San Francisco. He drove up from Stanford, where he was completing the undergraduate work he’d delayed in his junior year when the 49ers drafted him in the first round. Kwame had prepared carefully before meeting me.  He’d read the articles on my website, something that no other subject I’ve written about had bothered to do.  Fitting for someone who had switched his major from music to English when he re-enrolled at Stanford.


He said he liked my writing style and quoted a few phrases from my articles from memory. “In each of these articles you have a personal interest in the story,” he said. “Why would you be interested in the problems of a gay man?”


I was speechless for a minute.  No subject of a story has turned the tables on me like Kwame Harris did.  In every other article the subject is so pleased to be profiled he or she inquires no further about the writer.


I told him I’d grown up in San Francisco, fourth generation in fact.  All of the women in my family had gay male friends who were just part of the world we lived in.  Their sexuality was never a topic of conversation. They broke up or coupled up just like our straight friends.  I thought this was the way of the world until I left the tolerant atmosphere of Noe Valley.

I had always had gay friends too.  One of my closest was Scott, a man who was my boyfriend before he embraced the fact that he was gay. I was in the room with him when he phoned his parents to tell them he was gay and that he had AIDS.  And I was with him when he died. I understood, as much as a straight woman can, the problems of a closeted gay man.

After I told him this, Kwame agreed to the article. I said we’d need to speak three times, but it turned out we saw each other seven. I’d meet him at a Starbucks at the southern end of the Stanford campus and we’d drive up Stanford Avenue in his battered gray SUV, the Yukon Denali he bought with his 49er signing bonus a decade before. Then we’d wander the campus to find a place to talk.  At 5’4” I’d hustle along, my stubby legs pumping to match the effortless stride of his much longer ones.

Kwame busted my stereotype of football players in the first conversation. If I had met him not knowing about his struggles inside the NFL, the fact that he was gay would have been about the fifth or sixth quality I’d used in describing him. He is a talented athlete, a gifted musician, a trained chef, someone who reads with great insight, a man with a strong analytical mind and he’s gay.

He asked me almost as many questions as I asked him. His were more philosophical than personal, although my answers often veered into personal history.  Seated together at a table in the student union or on the patio of the English Department, I’d forget how much larger he was than me.  He’d lean in as he asked a question about the true nature of love or one about the impossibility of relationships. Those were the topics that interested him the most, although we ended up discussing cooking, the tragedy of the Boston Marathon bombing, and the nature of family, true brotherhood and friendship.

The story that posted today focuses on his struggles staying in the closet, how he played at the edges of wanting to be known and fearing that he would be. There are some who will judge him for his inconsistency in both wanting to taunt the coaches with the truth of who he was, and the terror of being known. What I wanted for the story is for it to be a true depiction of that struggle and the costs both to the man and to the team for this “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” way of handling a gay player.  I see Kwame as very brave to be as candid as he was about how he played on that edge.


Herb Caen’s Beautiful Words on the 75th Anniversary Birthday of the Golden Gate Bridge

May 27th, 2012 No Comments

Herb Caen’s tributes to the Golden Gate Bridge were many in the sentimental columns he wrote every Sunday in The SF Chronicle.  I thank The Chronicle for stitching together this moving tribute of snippets from his observations  about “this mystical structure with it’s perfect amalgan of delicacy and power . . . the car-strangled spanner.” And perhaps his most insightful observation in this piece, ” That there is no stupidity great enough to ruin the majesty of the Golden Gate Bridge. It has been the subject of terrible poetry and worst paintings. But it rises easily and grandly above the mundane, it’s towers poking through  the fogs, natural and man-made. Don’t worry about the party, the bridge is it’s own celebration today and every day.”