My speech at the Cabot awards ceremony

My speech, as delivered on Oct. 15, 2014 in Low Library at 
Columbia University. I was one of four recipients of the 
2014 Maria Moors Cabot award for excellence in coverage 
of Latin America.
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I want to express my deep gratitude to Columbia University, to the Cabot
jury, to my editors and colleagues at the AP, to Claude Erbsen, who got
me to Bogota in 1996, and to my wife, Ceci. How she puts up with me and
my crazy work schedule is a mystery.

When I moved back to Bogota in 2006, some of my colleagues in New York
had an idea why I might be leaving the AP technology news department,
which I had pretty much built from scratch. A crack, loyal staff, they
knew, awaited me in Bogota, people who called me "jefe." I'll be honest.
I loved the trappings. I loved, most of all, that we had a large,
talented staff. We could be ambitious, comprehensive.
 
Then came the industry carnage.

Where once we were nine full-time AP English-language staffers in five
Andean countries, now we are three. And that's just English. We try to
adjust, but we cannot pretend to be pleased. Too much goes uncovered.

For all the noise on Twitter, for all the glut of information, U.S.
consumers of international news are simply less informed these days,
particularly from our beloved Americas. Every day, we front-line
journalists must make painful decisions about what we can't cover. Too
often, they are important stories that challenge powerful interests. In
Lima, my home since 2011, local established media tend to ignore such
stories.

So how do we ensure that such stories are told?

I'm pleased to report that I have come to know a group of talented,
tenacious and mostly young journalists who give me hope. They are my
colleagues in Peru's fledgling Hacks/Hackers group. They are serious,
idealistic. They are embracing data journalism. They are demanding that
Peru's freedom-of-information law be honored. They are scraping what
little public information is available to coax out news that matters.
And they are getting results.

Recently, some teamed with programmers and scoured the biographies of
the more than 100,000 candidates for the state and local elections that
Peru held this month. They cross-referenced the bios with public
databases. They found convicted embezzlers, deadbeat dads, rapists and
more than a dozen candidates convicted of drug-related crimes.

It was Peru's first big data journalism story. Authorities had no choice
but to react. Some candidates were disqualified. Peru's interior
minister compiled a list of 124 so-called "narco-candidates" under
investigation tried or sentenced for drug-related crimes. But it’s just
a start. Three of those candidates are now governors-elect.

I have great hopes for the young Latin American journalists doing such work.
They deserve our esteem, our attention _ and they deserve some serious
foundation money. It is an honor to shill for them.    

And now to my pet peeve.

I am an insufferable geek, and a terrible nag when it comes to digital
security. Just ask my co-workers. If we journalists don't protect our
data we can lose sources in the worst ways. They can lose their jobs.
They can be killed. Not enough news organizations are taking this
seriously enough. We need to invest in solutions and educate staff.
Anyone covering a beat that is even remotely sensitive needs to be using
encrypted communications. And they need to lock down their data.
Editors, too.  We must also equip our sources, and the provincial
journalists with whom we often deal. They can face the greatest dangers.

If we are to remain credible _ if we want people to trust us with
delicate data_ we must know how to protect its integrity. Otherwise, the
information war will be ours to lose.

Latin America ranks lowest in security / Venezuela most dangerous (Bolivia & Peru not much better)

Gallup published a study last month that found residents of Latin America/Caribbean, among global regions, the least likely to feel secure. Gallup’s Law and Order Index is based on confidence in local police, feelings of personal safety and self-reported incidence of theft. The region’s most insecure countries after Venezuela were Bolivia then Peru, whose score of 48 was the same as Syria’s.

Gallup image - Venezuela worst

Maria Moors Cabot awardee

It was a great week. Columbia U. announced this year’s recipients of the oldest award for international journalism given in the United States. It’s for excellence in coverage of Latin America and the Caribbean. There’s an Oct. 15 awards dinner in New York.

The last winner from The Associated Press (in 2000) was Eloy Aguilar, the late, great Mexico and Central America bureau chief (past winners). I’m in very distinguished company.  And we’ve certainly come a long way from 1965, when the men’s club lineup included AP’s LatAm editor. 1965 Maria Moors Cabot

 

 

 

 

The week’s tweets included this circa 1997 photo ,posted by daughter Luna, in my Bogota office. It had bullet-proof glass surrounded by a thin wooden frame. The Cali cartel was coming apart in those days but FARC rebels were overrunning military bases right and left and parents of my kids’ school chums were getting extorted by the guerrillas.

Embedded image permalink

Safeguarding the Fourth Estate

Good to see The Citizen Lab’s Knight News Challenge entry for teaching digital security to journalists. There is far too much resistance, ignorance and indifference in newsrooms to securing communications. Journalists understand, I think, that online and telephone newsgathering are easily monitored by multiple actors but most do nothing to protect themselves and their sources. Good also to see the focus for The Citizen Lab is the global south, where I work.

It is not only urgent and essential for journalists to understand how to protect themselves in communications with sources. It is also vital that sources understand how to use these tools. Just today, I spoke to a newsmaker who has been targeted by state and corporate espionage and yet had no means available of communicating with me securely. I had to bring it up. I said, “You and I both know that this phone conversation is almost certainly tapped.” He laughed. But the shared understanding also put a chill into the conversation. And so we’ll need to go offline to discuss the important stuff.

And that takes more time, and requires physical meetings, slowing down the process of gathering and disseminating information. The well-funded spooks win, again.

There are 667 entries in this round of the Knight News Challenge. The round is all about strengthening the Internet for free expression and innovation.

Bitcoin: More about philosophy than finance

Alan Feuer got it right in today’s NYTimes. The virtual digital currency Bitcoin was not chiefly created as a money-making venture.

“To its creators and numerous disciples, bitcoin is — and always has been — a mostly ideological undertaking, more philosophy than finance,” he writes.

All that we’re reading about Bitcoins getting stolen from digital wallets is not anywhere near as interesting as who is recognizing them as currency.

Bitcoin is news because it is disruptive. It embodies a throwing down of the gauntlet by a person or persons (Satoshi Nakamoto) fed up with how the global banking system _ comprised of “fiat” currencies created by nation-states – had fallen prey in 2008 to the machinations of greedy bankers and spineless politicians.

Satoshi was simply fed up with the banks deemed “too big to fail” that failed us all and whose bailout we bankrolled. Stateless digital currencies _ electronic cash as David Chaum envisioned it when he patented the idea in 1982 _ will allow us to develop new models for making payments that cut out the usurious middleman and democratize the economy.

And the key, of course, is public-key cryptography. Want to geek out on how a Bitcoin transation works?  Try this illustration from IEEE Spectrum: “The CryptoAnarchists’ Answer to Cash.”

 

Brazil’s about ready to poke out the “Five Eyes”

A Twitter wag asked today why Glenn Greenwald doesn’t just unload all his Snowden-endowed dirt on who is spying on Brazil in one article. I thought of the old journalistic saw: “Why to sell newspapers, of course.” Sounds quaint, eh?

The Canadians reportedly busted open encryption to have their way with Brazil’s mining ministry. We’d already heard that the NSA spied on Petrobras and President Rousseff’s inner circle. Still to come: Details on how Brazil spies on its citizens. Have patience. Brazilian colleagues are surely working it.

It will be time soon for an update on the divorce Rousseff is preparing from the U.S.-centric Internet. Plenty of experts think that’s a bad idea and will only encourage Balkanization by really nasty regimes already bent on inhibiting the free flow of  information.

 

The Most Important Snowden Documents Yet

I have always trusted Bruce Schneier, author of the much-respected 1996 “Applied Cryptography.”

Glenn Greenwald showed Schneier some of the Snowden documents that featured in today’s stories by The Guardian, The New York Times and Propublica. They are the most important, upsetting revelations to date from the Snowden trove. Without doubt.

The NSA, says Schneier, has been breaking most of the encryption on the Net.  He says the U.S. government has betrayed the Internet and we need to take it back.

Schneier summarizes what the NSA has done to make the Internet a more dangerous place and five ways to stay safe online:  Hide in the network. Encrypt your communications. Assume that while your computer can be compromised, it would take work and risk by the NSA – so it probably isn’t.  Be suspicious of commercial encryption software, especially from large vendors. Try to use public-domain encryption.

The NSA was told in the mid-1990s that it could not have the Clipper Chip, the backdoor it wanted into our digital lives . Silicon Valley and Bill Gates objected. By 1996 the Clipper Chip was defunct. So the NSA decided to begin breaking-and-entering on its own. Without our approval.

Greenwald/Snowden gave the public some time to prepare today’s disclosure. First, give it a series of primers on the extent to which the NSA is spying on the American public (not to mention allies). Then unload this zinger.

I want more details. What exactly is compromised? Is everything I do using SSL on my Mozilla Firefox browser compromised?

Boing Boing tweeted KEEP CALM AND USE OPEN SOURCE CRYPTO. Excellent advice. Time to revise my anti-surveillance toolkit.