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Proposed Bill Seeks to Protect Researchers Disclosing Classified Government Backdoors

Newly introduced legislation seeks to protect journalist who publish classified information, as well as security researchers who discover classified government backdoors. 

Newly introduced legislation seeks to protect journalist who publish classified information, as well as security researchers who discover classified government backdoors. 

Referred to as the Espionage Act Reform Act of 2020, the new bill (PDF) was introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., to “rewrite the hundred-year-old law governing when reporters and whistleblowers can be prosecuted for discussing government secrets.”

The legislation would authorize the “appropriate disclosure” of classified information and provide protection to those who disclose such information. 

The modification to the Espionage Act of 1917 would better protect journalists that have been increasingly targeted for disclosing government secrets. It would also ensure that whistleblowers can report waste, fraud and abuse to Congress.

Additionally, the new legislation aims to ensure that cybersecurity experts are not prosecuted for revealing backdoors that the government might have introduced in encryption algorithms and communications apps used publicly. 

Thus, the burden is placed on the government to hide their surveillance backdoors, and not on researchers who discover and report on those backdoors. 

Current law criminalizes the disclosure of classified information that is related to signals intelligence to any member of Congress, unless a committee demanded it, which creates a disadvantage for members in the minority party and those who are not part of a committee. 

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The new bill seeks to address that by ensuring that each member of Congress is equally able to receive classified information, including from whistleblowers.

Per the bill, journalists won’t be prosecuted when asking for, receiving, or publishing government secrets, and federal courts, inspector generals, the Federal Communications Commission, Federal Trade Commission and Privacy & Civil Liberties Oversight Board are allowed to conduct oversight into privacy abuses.

“As the son of an investigative reporter I believe it is un-American to prosecute journalists for what they write – especially when it comes to how the government may be weaponizing the intelligence agencies for political gain,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (OR). This bill ensures only personnel with security clearances can be prosecuted for improperly revealing classified information.”

“My bill with Senator Wyden will protect journalists from being prosecuted under the Espionage Act and make it easier for members of Congress, as well as federal agencies, to conduct proper oversight over any privacy abuses. Our nation’s strength rests on the freedom of the press, transparency, and a functioning system of checks and balances. This bill is a step toward ensuring those same principles apply to intelligence gathering and surveillance operations,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (CA-17).

The bill, however, keeps in place criminal penalties for foreign spies, those who work for foreign governments, or those who violate another federal law, as well as for government employees and contractors who reveal classified information, such as former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The bill would have no impact on the government’s prosecution of Julian Assange either. 

Related: US Congress Passes Bill Funding ‘Rip and Replace’ for Huawei Gear

Related: New Bill Would Prohibit Intelligence Sharing With Countries That Use Huawei

Related: Cybersecurity Bill Would Set Defense Plan for Local Agencies

Written By

Ionut Arghire is an international correspondent for SecurityWeek.

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