British spy agency intercepted emails of journalists, considers them 'threats' alongside terrorists and hackers


Executive Director

Newly disclosed documents from Edward Snowden, revealed today by the Guardian, show that the British spy agency (and close NSA partner) GCHQ intercepted emails from many of the US and UK’s most well-known news organizations, including the New York Times, Washington Post, BBC, Reuters, the Guardian, Le Monde, the Sun, and NBC.

As the Guardian reported:

The journalists’ communications were among 70,000 emails harvested in the space of less than 10 minutes on one day in November 2008 by one of GCHQ’s numerous taps on the fibre-optic cables that make up the backbone of the internet.

Perhaps even more disturbing, an internal GCHQ “security assessment” document reportedly listed “‘investigative journalists’ as a threat in a hierarchy alongside terrorists or hackers.”

Internal security advice shared among the intelligence agencies was often as preoccupied with the activities of journalists as with more conventional threats such as foreign intelligence, hackers or criminals.

One restricted document intended for those in army intelligence warned that “journalists and reporters representing all types of news media represent a potential threat to security”.

This is yet another outrageous violation of press freedom by the British government, which has increasingly shown contempt for newsgathering and the rights of journalists.

We know from previous Snowden documents that the GCHQ essentially has no barriers when scooping up the communications of virtually anyone they want, including news organizations. The Intercept previously reported that the spy agency conducted surveillance on WikiLeaks and its readers, and that it has the authority to target journalists and lawyers in many situations. In addition, the UK government detained David Miranda, partner to journalist Glenn Greenwald, under the Terrorism Act, and have an active criminal investigation open on the Guardian for its reporting on the Snowden documents. 

It was also recently revealed that the UK police have been regularly spying on journalists phone records. (More than 100 editors have signed a letter in protest.)

We hope every news organization named in the report today strongly condemns the GCHQ’s actions and that representatives in the UK parliament act quickly to rein in this deplorable behavior. Spying on journalists has no place in democracy, and the UK has increasingly been taking anti-free speech positions that are usually reserved for some of the world’s worst authoritarian regimes.

The fact that the GCHQ can so easily intercept journalists' emails is yet another reminder that news organizations must better protect their security. As technologist Chris Soghoian notes, many of the organizations listed in the Guardian’s report do not use STARTTLS encryption on their email servers, which makes surveillance trivially easy for large spy agencies. None of the news organizations named in the GCHQ documents have yet to switch their websites over the HTTPS encryption by default either. 

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