Informing the American people about how their government spies on them can be risky business for journalists.
Rajiv Pant, chief technology officer at The New York Times(NYT), thought he could be killed for it.
It was the IT help request from hell. British newspaper The Guardian provided the Times with top-secret electronic documents exposed by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. Pant oversaw the handoff between the Guardian and the New York Times.
At the recent AppSec USA cybersecurity conference, the Times' chief technology officer described those tense initial moments.
The Times had to quietly sneak hard drives containing the top-secret documents back to its New York headquarters. Pant didn't explain how the newspaper did it but said, "We smuggled it into the country, basically."
After the Times set up a special, highly guarded room to isolate the sensitive files, Pant made sure he didn't take a single peek as the PowerPoint slides and files made their way into the newsroom's computers.
"It can get scary. I told myself: 'I don't want to see anything on those drives. I could be putting my life at risk,'" Pant said.
When pressed to further explain his fears, Pant said he's worried about how far the U.S. government will go to hunt down anyone who's seen this batch of classified data without a clearance.
Then came the most harrowing part. Pant had to buy extra hard drives to serve as backup copies of the top-secret files. He made his way to a local Radioshack(RSH) (there's one directly in front of the New York Times' building).
He was about to purchase a hard drive on his credit card when he realized that the same government secretly monitoring journalists' phone records could also be tracking their purchases. He grabbed five other random items and bought them in cash.
"You almost become paranoid," Pant said.
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His fears about retribution aren't completely the stuff of tinfoil hat conspiracy theorists. Federal prosecutors have filed charges against Snowden, citing the 1917 Espionage Act. Congressman Peter King, a Republican from New York, has called for the prosecution of Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who first exposed Snowden's revelations.
And this week, the Guardian's top editor, Alan Rusbridger, told British Parliament that the government has engaged in a campaign of intimidation against his organization. Politicians have threatened prosecution, and officials demanded that the Guardian destroy hardware housing top-secret documents. Rusbridger said his staff complied in August, taking to the basement and using power tools to ruin the hard drives -- under the careful watch of two agents from Britain's NSA equivalent, the Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ.