Burner Phones and Email Encryption: Protecting Documentary Sources in a Surveillance State

Investigative documentary filmmaker Sonia Kennebeck shares her experiences making National Bird in a post-Edward Snowden world.

I bought a burner phone in cash and felt like a criminal. Earlier, as I was spreading the dollar bills on the counter, I asked myself, “Am I completely paranoid?” It was not the first time during the production of my drone warfare documentary, National Bird, that this thought crossed my mind, and it was certainly not the last.

But I was not paranoid – and neither were the protagonists of my film, three whistleblowers who had worked in the U.S. drone program with top-secret clearances. Less than 24 hours prior to my phone purchase, one of them had had their home raided by the FBI and was now being investigated for espionage. I needed to contact my lawyer, an expert on First Amendment rights, and given the recent turn of events, using my own phone did not seem like a good idea.

When I started my research for National Bird, I knew I was entering dangerous territory loaded with sensitive information. My goal for the film was to speak to the people directly impacted by the drone war, not to some pundits in suits in front of bookshelves. I wanted to gain access to the people on the inside who were fighting this high-tech war, and to the victims and survivors in the target countries. This was a risky project from the outset and it became necessary to work with lawyers to reduce the risks for everyone involved.

With the money from my first small production grant, I hired an attorney, Frank Dehn, to consult me on how I could protect my sources. All those months later, he was the person I called from the burner phone.

I also contacted Jesselyn Radack, a prominent whistleblower attorney and legal counsel for Edward Snowden. Today, she represents all three whistleblowers featured in National Bird. Jesselyn says she often feels she is using the same methods as criminals to protect her clients – not unlike my own feelings as I purchased the burner phone – but in the national security arena, she is convinced these precautions are necessary.

In the past eight years, the Obama administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined. It is a serious crime that can be punished with decades in prison, and the defendants may face legal bills upward of a million dollars. This is an extremely worrisome development considering whistleblowing means to expose waste, fraud, abuses, crimes and illegal activities. Such truth-telling is of particular importance in the area of national security, where the stakes are extraordinarily high and often involve human lives.

To blow the whistle is an act of courage. Not only because of the potential backlash and threat of prosecution, but also because it means to be exposed to the public. The whistleblowers I have met are very private people who would rather live a quiet life away from the limelight than to be under constant public scrutiny, but saw the urgent need to inform the public about wrongdoings they had witnessed or even participated in. There is a hope the systematic failures or misconducts they exposed will be corrected and that more harm or human rights abuses will be prevented.

I can say with great certainty that this is the same motivation most filmmakers and journalists have when they cover social issues and human rights stories. When we conduct our investigations, we often work with whistleblowers and rely on their knowledge and expertise, so whistleblower protection laws and the First Amendment rights should be a major concern for us.

Our democracy relies on the work of independent filmmakers and journalists – and the courage of whistleblowers – to keep our government transparent and accountable. This type of reporting is difficult and risky, especially when it involves national security. But when we look back at our history, some of the most important revelations came from whistleblowers who were government employees.

Today it is becoming increasingly difficult to protect an anonymous source due to government surveillance. The Snowden revelations have made it abundantly clear that all our communication and data is collected and stored indefinitely. In addition, we are under surveillance on streets and other public spaces, and modern technologies like smart TVs and cars allow an intrusion into our lives that is unprecedented.

While all this is a grave concern for our work and our lives, I still believe we have to try everything to preserve the little privacy we have and reduce the risk and exposure for everyone involved in our work. Encryption is important on a personal level to protect personal privacy, but it is essential for journalist and filmmakers to protect sources and material.

My team and I used an arsenal of software to protect ourselves and our sources: GPG Tools, an email encryption package for Mac computers; Tails (Tor) for anonymous internet use; and Signal for encrypted text messages and phone calls. I traveled to San Francisco to meet with a staff member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization that advocates for online privacy rights and advises activists and journalists on surveillance self-defense. I was briefed on what I can do to protect myself and others – but was it enough?

About an hour after I called my lawyer Frank to inform him about the raid of my protagonist’s home, the new cell phone rang. No one was supposed to have had the number. When I picked up the call, there was a male voice on the line, and all it said was: “Is this Frank?”

Sonia Kennebeck is an independent documentary filmmaker and investigative journalist with more than 20 years of directing and producing experience. She has directed eight television documentaries and more than 50 investigative reports. National Bird, her first feature-length film, premiered at the Berlin Film Festival 2016 and was also selected for Tribeca, Sheffield, and IDFA. She lives in New York where she runs her own production company, Codebreaker Films, that makes films about international politics and human rights. Her latest film, Reality Winner, is currently playing in select theaters across the United States.