#Miranda: some additional notes on reliability, legality and security

by Naomi Colvin

The past few days have turned up some articles that shed further light on the subject of David Miranda’s detention (which I have previously blogged on here and here).

The reliability of Oliver Robbins

Ryan Chittum, a writer for the Columbia Journalism Review, was cited in Oliver Robbins’ witness statement. In another piece for CJR, Chittum takes issue with the way his writing was used by Robbins and demonstrates how selective quoting meant that the original sense of his piece was lost:

Here’s Robbins:

In an article published on the same day by the Columbia Journalism Review (“Guardian bombshells in an escalating battle against journalism”) Ryan Chittum wrote that the claimant “was serving as a human passenger pigeon, shuttling encrypted files on USB drives between filmmaker Laura Poitras and Greenwald”.

And here’s what I actually wrote:

Miranda was serving as a human passenger pigeon, shuttling encrypted files on USB drives between filmmaker Laura Poitras and Greenwald because, as the whole world now knows, the Internet is fully bugged by the US and UK governments.

Chittum’s conclusion on the reliability of Oliver Robbins’ statement is worth noting:

If it were just a clipped quote, there wouldn’t be much to protest here. But that kind of thing raises questions about what else in Robbins’s testimony isn’t all there. It turns out that Robbins uses selective quotes, specious reasoning, questionable numbers, and flat-out disingenuous claims to make his case that journalists merely possessing secrets was a grave danger to the United Kingdom.

UN Special Rapporteurs question the legality of Miranda’s detention

The Guardian reports that two UN Special Rapporteurs, Frank La Rue (who holds the UN’s free expression brief) and Ben Emmerson (human rights and counter-terrorism) have written to David Cameron to request further information on the grounds for David Miranda’s detention under Schedule 7 powers which, as Ben Emmerson notes, are currently the subject of challenge in the European Court of Human Rights.

This follows a similar move from the Council of Europe, whose Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland wrote to Home Secretary Theresa May a few days after David Miranda was detained, questioning whether UK actions might have a “chilling effect” on journalists’ freedom of expression, as guaranteed in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights,


One of the more important practical conclusions to be drawn from my analysis of the UK Government’s witness statements in Home Office v Miranda, one I maybe should have drawn out more clearly, is that – as far as we can tell – encryption works. Despite the presumably rather large resources UK authorities have dedicated to this problem, they have only been able to decrypt, and read the contents of, the encrypted file they had the password for.

Related to this, and prompted by another series of Washington Post articles sourced by Edward Snowden, Bruce Schneier wrote a very interesting article for Wired this week on what the NSA (probably) can and can’t do.

So learning to use TrueCrypt is a worthwhile use of your time. For those wondering where to start, the tutorial on the TrueCrypt website tries to ensure that you understand the process before taking any major steps. Alternatively, attending a CryptoParty – like this one proposed for Mozfest in London next month – may be useful if you want to discuss the process with someone face to face. Journalists working with extraordinarily sensitive data may want to bear this in mind too.

Update (6/9)

If you’re wondering where yesterday’s Snowden stories in the Guardian, New York Times and ProPublica leave my statements above, this post will explain more.

Update II (7/9)

Glenn Greenwald discussed David Miranda’s detention and what the UK Government had to say about it on yesterday’s edition of Democracy Now. Here’s what Glenn said regarding the UK witness statements:

He hasn’t gotten any of his belongings back. And one of the things that happened is that the U.K. government just outright lied about what took place that day. They claimed he was carrying a password that allowed them access to 58,000 classified documents. He was not carrying any password that allowed them access to any documents. They actually filed an affidavit the same day they made that claim, saying—asking the court to let them continue to keep his belongings on the ground that all of the material he was carrying was heavily encrypted, that they couldn’t break the encryption, and they only got access to 75 of the documents that he was carrying, most of which are probably ones related to his school work and personal use. But, of course, media outlet has just uncritically repeated what the U.K. government had said, as though it were true. It wasn’t true; it was a pack of lies. But even if it were true, the idea that you’re going to detain somebody under a terrorism law who you think is working with journalists is incredibly menacing, as menacing as anything the U.K. government denounces when other countries do it.

Thanks to those in the comments here and on twitter who alerted me to this interview.