CHENNAI: “When you guys go to a doctor for a medical check-up, do you think that’s a private conversation?” Alan Rusbridger asks the audience of teachers and students. The query is met with a unanimous ‘yes’ from the sea of 196 students listening in rapt attention to the former Editor-in-chief of The Guardian, who became popular after he broke the news of the National Surveillance Agency (NSA) snooping, brought to light by American whistleblower Edward Snowden. “To a journalist, a source is something sacred, and information that comes our way is sensitive,” said the veteran, speaking at the orientation session of the Asian College of Journalism which welcomed its newest batch of students on Monday.
Rusbridger, who will be conducting sessions for the students during his three-week-long stint, will be speaking under three themes - ‘Climate Change’, ‘Snowden’ and ‘Other modes of Journalism’.
“If it becomes easy to trace who all a journalist met with and spoke to, in the coming future, the profession will soon dry up,” he noted, speaking on ‘Journalism since Edward Snowden’. He points out that it is in this current era of international espionage and privacy being a premium, that the whistle-blower made his case known through The Guardian.
Rusbridger says that it is easy for a government to figure out what every single person at a given room of audience is up to. “It won’t take more than minutes to tell what each one of you does, your background and your activities,” he told the students whose interest was piqued further. Metadata, for instance, was revealed to be a treasure trove for information-siphoning. Although it differs from ‘data’ in some technical respects, it is still perused by international spies putting people in the risk of being snooped on and data-theft. In layman’s language, Metadata is data about data (data about a text message for example like time, date, sender) and if “only need metadata, not your personal data” is an institutional disclaimer that used to put people at ease, we might have to think again. Because, as Alan reveals, “If you ask spies, they’ll say ‘that’s all we need’. Just metadata can help in drawing the pattern of a person’s life and habits.” He rues that at the international level, the technology engaged by governments in scouring its own citizen’s personal data is shockingly beyond the knowledge and comprehension of even legislators and judiciary. “And in the midst of political and commercial affiliations, the decision to publish something comes down to the story itself. The decision stands on the folds of the material,” he says, answering the plethora of questions from the students. “You’re here to think! If there’s time for it after your lessons that is..” he adds in jest.