Posts Tagged ‘journalism’

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.

“World On Fire” Finalist for The PEN Literary Non-Fiction Award

August 27th, 2013 No Comments



The morning after the fire

As the sun rose, there was little left of the warehouse


My story “A World On Fire” was a finalist the PEN literary non-fiction award for 2013, but alas it didn’t win.

The story is about eight young travelers who died in a squat fire in New Orleans 9th Ward just before New Years 2012.  I went to New Orleans two weeks after the fire and two more times after that.  I interviewed at length six of the families of those who died  as well as many of their friends in New Orleans and wherever I could snag them on the road. The story expanded from the night of the fire to the reasons young people choose this dangerous life and what keeps them there, as well as the agony of the parents who worry that they may never see their children again.

When the story was published in Boston Review’s January/February issue, it got a lot of attention.  I’m attaching here a link to my appearance on “Talk of the Nation” the NPR weekday morning show that was cancelled recently.  Neal Conan asked if any of the parents of the dead would consent to be interviewed and I immediately thought of Marty Goslee Jaramillo, the mother of Katie Simianer, one of the young women who died in the fire.  The piece starts with her beautiful sentiment of peace and acceptance told in her  angelic voice.  The comments on the piece are pretty good too.

I am honored to be a finalist.  PenUSA only nominated three stories in the literary non-fiction category, which makes my story one  of a very select few.

I spent a year working on this story which, as you will see if you read it, is very close to my heart. I am so pleased that the traveling community let me in and gave me a chance to honor their friends and the families who have suffered greatly for this tragedy. I am also grateful to PEN for seeing this as a story of value.

The Golden Gate — The Bridge That Nearly Killed Me

May 27th, 2012 2 Comments



The 50th Anniversary of the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge was the day I almost died, twice.

I’m thinking about it because today is the 75th Anniversary and I’m planning to go there, but not as a journalist, as I did the last time. This, I hope, is a safer way to celebrate.

For the 50th, my friend and colleague Janet Wells and I were assigned to cover the event by our employer, The San Jose Mercury News. The bridge authority had predicted there would be 50,000 people on the bridge. After all, when the bridge opened in the 1930s, only 30,000 people showed up, as this archive photo shows. 

We wanted to get there early. I agreed to meet her at her house in the Haight at 4 a.m. to catch one of the buses the city had provided to ferry people to the site as there was no parking.

Bleary-eyed and clutching cups of coffee, we staggered toward a bus stop at edge of the Golden Gate Park panhandle to find hundreds of people jostling in the dark trying to muscle their way onto the packed buses.

We approached a police officer at the front of the queue, press passes in hand, and tried to board the bus citing media privilege. “I’ve got a crowd control issue here,” the officer said. “You’re on your own ladies.”

I don’t remember how we got to the entrance to the bridge, but as the crowd surged forward, Janet and I lost each other. That probably only took 30 seconds, but in an era before cell phones, I never saw Janet again until we filed our story.

I’d never been in a mob before, nor experienced mob mentality.  As we walked onto bridge, the mood was joyful.  People wore costumes and furry hats, rode decorated bikes, all of us swept along in good feeling.

Then suddenly I realized (probably along with many others) that I had no choice but to walk forward. If I stopped to tie my shoe, I might get trampled.  Panic rose in me, a feeling that I had no free will and that there were terrible consequences if I stumbled.

Just then, the crowd dissipated.  At the center point of the bridge, there was open space.

As the sun rose, I saw the army of revelers advancing on us from the North, the Marin contingent.

My first thought, “We’re from San Francisco, and we’re going to kick your asses.”

Much as I wanted it, this was not a scene from West Side Story.

No fist fights broke out between warring factions.  We danced at the center of the bridge with all of the Bay Area gleaming in the beautiful spring sunlight.

Much later, I met Janet at the press room, where we found out that we had been in another kind of danger at the center of the bridge.  The bridge authority had woefully underestimated the crowd, off by a factor of 16 The weight of 800,000 people on the bridge had caused it to sag.  People said the cables supporting the bridge were stretched as tight as harp strings. Engineers feared that the strain these bodies caused on the steel cables might damage the bridge, and also feared the panic that would ensue if they tried to clear it.

Some later said that if we had been marching forward in unison, the heavy, coordinated footfalls hitting the bridge deck at the same time, it might have given way.  Fortunately, it’s difficult to get any one group of San Franciscans to do anything in unison.

After we filed our story around 6 p.m., we hailed a cab heading to a party at the top of Russian Hill. I was exhausted.  I rested my head on Janet’s shoulder and nodded off.

At the edge of my consciousness, I head a rhythmic tapping that accelerated into a frantic pounding.

“This damn cab!” the taxi driver said. “It’s got no damn brakes.”

I sat up straight. Janet and I looked at each other wild-eyed as the cab crested Taylor street, propelled off the road and into the air.

“We’re gonna die,” Janet said quietly as I grabbed her hand.

“We survived the bridge sag, and we’re going to eat it on a San Francisco hill,” I whispered under my breath.

With some adept use of the emergency brake, the cabbie brought us safely to our destination.  We tipped him heavily, and drank heavily at the party.  The day that began at 4 a.m. ended the next day at 1 a.m.

The bridge is closed to pedestrian traffic for today’s celebration.  I guess they learned their lesson at the bridge authority.