As technology has become more and more advanced over the past decade, it is now much easier for journalists to gather information. Journalists largely rely on whistle-blowers and anonymous sources for crucial material in crafting a blockbuster story. But what is the future for this relationship in wake of the legislation that will allow the Australian government to follow anyone’s digital footprint?
I’m talking about metadata retention. The term ‘metadata’ is very ambiguous, but is most simply defined as data about data. For example, if two people were to engage in a phone conversation, the metadata would include the identity of the two people, the time that they had the conversation, how long they were talking for, and where they were when they were talking, but not what was said in the conversation.
This applies to any type of digital communication, and the legislation likely to be passed will allow the government to see anyone’s digital records dating back to two years. The main argument for this technology is that it is a security measure to identify criminal and terrorist activities, which is a fair statement. But who is to say that it won’t be used for other things, such as exposing whistle-blowers?
The government would have a strong motive to use metadata retention for this reason, after the incident of Edward Snowden leaking documents from the National Security Agency in America to journalist Glenn Greenwald from The Guardian US. These documents exposed the extreme level of surveillance on the American people, and of other countries, which was controversial as people saw it as an invasion of privacy.
So what impact does metadata retention have on the future of journalism? It is a strong possibility that whistle-blowers will be deterred from providing any information to journalists in fear of being exposed as the anonymous source, but we will have to wait and see how the technology plays out.