The Garda Commissioner’s use of her private email account has highlighted the issue of cyber security. Acclaimed author and investigative journalist Luke Harding tells Joyce Fegan why he certainly does not consider email to be private messaging.

Guardian journalist and author of the Snowden Files, Luke Harding, spent four years in Moscow as a bureau chief for The Guardian, where he was heavily surveilled and later deported.

He does not consider email as private messaging and also chooses not to bank online.

His 2014 book has just been released as a film with digital whistleblower Edward Snowden played by American actor Joseph Gordon- Levitt.

Having worked at the forefront of the erosion of privacy as we know it, thanks to the digital age, he has some words of warning for the general public.

“In Russia, when I was there as a correspondent for four years our apartment was bugged and my wife and I subsequently discovered there was video in our bedroom.

“We were basically totally surveilled and this was fairly standard for the FSB (Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation) which was the kind of KBG (security service of the former Soviet Union),” he told the Irish Examiner.

“If you haven’t got privacy it does kind of begin to corrode you and I’m not saying the US and the UK are as invasive as say the Kremlin but I sort of think, when you fire up your laptop what you write, whether it’s an email or whether say you’re a teenager uncertain about your sexuality and you’re looking online, then that should be private unless there’s a compelling reason for the state to look at that and at the moment it’s not private, it’s being captured.

Do you think email and online banking are private?

“They say they’ll only look at it if they need to, but if you imagine say 30 years ago in the pre-internet age, if everything you’ve written, your diary for example had been taken, we would think that’s totally unacceptable,” he said.

As far as his life and privacy goes now, the author and journalist is very careful about the digital footprint he leaves behind and does as much as possible to ensure his personal data, be it of a financial nature or otherwise, is safely secured with ever-changing passwords.

“I use things like LastPass. LastPass is a password management app where they generate very random passwords, I don’t know the password to my Gmail account. It’s incredibly complex. You go in (to your email) via Last Pass and then you open up your Gmail account with that password. It means it’s harder to hack.

“Then there’s Google authenticator for all sorts of stuff now, for VPN connection, for Gmail account, the number changes every 60 seconds, so without the number you can’t access it,” Harding said.

He also encrypts his emails, which means they can only be read by their intended recipient as most emails are not encrypted and are therefore known as being sent “in the clear”.

“The most sensitive stuff that I deal with now, certainly I encrypt, but also I got an anonymous letter two weeks ago, it’s a long time since I had an anonymous letter but people are realising that the electronic route isn’t the most secure and they’re sending stuff in brown envelopes again. I don’t use a banking app.”

His experience in Russia is not the only thing that makes him attentive to his privacy. Harding was part of a team of journalists who worked on the Snowden files in 2013, when they were leaked to the media.

Working in a room on the fourth floor of The Guardian’sLondon office, Harding was part of a team that used new computers and covered windows in brown paper bags, to securely decipher the content they had just received. However, he said he did not feel paranoid, more suspicious that the police would arrest him and take their files.

“It was more that I thought the ‘plod’ (of incoming police officers) would come up the stairs and arrest us all.

“I didn’t think we’d be killed in King’s Cross (The Guardian office). I thought they’d come in, take us into custody and all our material would be seized,” he said.

Three years later and still with his freedom intact, Mr Harding believes Mr Snowden is a brave person who did a great service to the world.

Edward Snowden is an incredibly brave guy who pulled down the curtain, says Luke Harding.
Edward Snowden is an incredibly brave guy who pulled down the curtain, says Luke Harding.

“I think he is an incredibly brave guy who basically pulled down the curtain and revealed the real nature of things — which is actually essentially that your emails, my emails, Google searches, all the data from our iPhones, location data is being hoovered up by the US, the NSA, by the Brits.

“And at what point did we agree to all of this? I’m not sure we did and basically the spying capabilities now are bigger than any other point in our history and I think unless we make a fuss about it, privacy is rapidly disappearing not just for our generation but for the next generation,” he said.

However, Mr Harding believes that Mr Snowden’s fate, unless there is a regime change, lies in Russia.

“I don’t think the US will forgive him. There’s nothing to be gained from pardoning Snowden so I think unfortunately the reality is he’s stuck in Moscow,” said Mr Harding.

As far as Mr Snowden himself goes, he likes the film and even has a cameo in it. “He likes the film, he’s seen the film, he’s actually in the film. He appears at the end. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is playing Mr Snowden and the end of the film is that the Hollywood Snowden morphs into the real Mr Snowden. It was filmed in a hotel room in Moscow,” said Mr Harding. n The journalist was talking at a recent Cybercrime Awareness Day 2016 event in Dublin


Lifestyle

In October 1986, 52 mute swans, living peacefully on the Tolka in Dublin, were drenched in diesel oil accidentally released into the river. Swan-catchers went into action; only one bird died before they reached it.Richard Collins: Human crisis will offer chance for wild animal research

It's a typically Irish summer’s day of sunshine and occasional showers. Travel restrictions have been eased again and we venture forth to one of nature’s gems, Gougane Barra, deep in the mountains of West Cork.Donal Hickey: Gougane Barra has peace and wildness

When the ferryman pulls away from the pier and the salty spray of the sea hits your face the feeling of release from the mainland is deeply pleasurable. Your island awaits. Whether for a day trip or a holiday, the lure of the islands is as magnetic as ever.The Islands of Ireland: The lure of the less-visited

Top tips for the telly this week, courtesy of Arts Editor Des O'Driscoll.Five TV shows for the week ahead: edgy drama and new shows

More From The Irish Examiner