Sergey Nivens -

How the DSMA balances security and privacy with press freedom

In a world of information sharing and 24-hour news cycles, the Defence and Security Media Advisory committee have to balance national security and data privacy with freedom of the press

The Defence and Security Media Advisory (DSMA) committee is a British institution that has been in existence for over a century. First called the Defence Notice committee, it acts as an official mechanism to request news editors to not publish or broadcast certain subjects for reasons of national security.

In 1993, it was renamed the Defence Advisory Notice committee; 22 years later, the committee was renamed again to the title it is known by today to reflect the inclusion of the intelligence services.

During the 110-plus years of the DSMA committee’s existence, it has witnessed two world wars, the rise of computers and the widespread adoption of the internet, as well as an entirely new vector for attacks through nation-state-sponsored hacking.

Brigadier (retired) Geoffrey Dodds OBE, a former Royal Engineer with the British Army, is the current secretary of the DSMA committee and is responsible for the day-to-day operations. 

“I have no specialist cyber background, but I do have knowledge of how government works and, over the last 10 years, I’ve learned to some extent how the media works,” says Dodds.

“Throughout a military career, you always have to be cyber aware. In 1977, the closest thing we had was probably radio interference and eavesdropping. We are trained to be aware of cyber issues. I’m not a signals intelligence expert, but any practitioner in the British army would know that there is this electronic threat.”

The DSMA committee comprises 19 senior members of the UK media and five representatives from the UK government. The committee offer guidance and set policy, which Dodds and his team execute.

“Every six months, I go back to the committee and report what I have done,” says Dodds. “They can ask questions and interrogate me at will. I may get a pat on the back or a slapped wrist.”

Although the DSMA committee considers all journalistic requests regarding defence and security information, they have five standing notices. These are written in broad terms, providing a media-friendly means of defining national security.

The standing notices, which are topics that are advised to not be reported, cover the following:

  • Military operations, plans and capabilities.
  • Nuclear and non-nuclear weapon systems and equipment.
  • Military counter-terrorist forces, special forces and intelligence agency operations, activities and communication methods and techniques.
  • Physical property and assets.
  • Personnel who work in sensitive positions, and their families.

Specific events tend to be more detailed, hence the DSMA cannot cover every eventuality with standing notices. In those cases, it is incumbent upon the journalists to contact the DSMA committee to ask for advice. Should the DSMA should become aware in advance of an event that would be damaging to national security if it were released into the public domain, a D-notice would be pre-emptively issued, requesting the information not be published or broadcast.

For Dodds, the DSMA committee is careful balancing act. On the one hand, there is the freedom of the press, but on the other there is protecting national security by not publishing sensitive or confidential information. Added to this is the fact that the DSMA committee has no formal powers.

Dodds and the DSMA committee cannot make legally sanctioned demands that editors and publishers must comply with. Instead, all their communications – known as D-notices – are purely advisory.

“Journalists can report what they want: as an example, I advise that sensitive personal information [SPI] of a certain person should not be broadcast or published,” says Dodds. 

“If a journalist wants to do that, for whatever reason – and some do – then they go ahead. There is no formal comeback from the DSMA committee. If I had any form of sanction, then no member of the media would speak to me.”

How society consumes media has completely changed since the DSMA committee was first created. We now have online news websites, 24-hour news services, social media platforms and citizen journalism. The rate at which news can be published and broadcast has increased tenfold since the DSMA committee was first formed and there is a need to keep pace with an ever-evolving news cycle.

Social media in particular has become a major issue for the DSMA committee. For many years, social media platforms have resisted government regulation or being recognised as a news platform. They claim they have no influence over what their users post online, as that would make the social media companies liable for what is published on their platforms.

“[Social media companies] understood the function of the DSMA notice system, which made my job slightly easier, but it never got movement further up the chain”

Geoffrey Dodds, DSMA

“Social media platforms have no editorial function; they claim they are just rebroadcasting what others post, which I believe is a little disingenuous,” says Dodds. “Given the number of people who use social media for news and communications, they are part of the modern communication scene, and this will only increase.”

However, the regulation of social media may be changing and is something that Dodds is keen to see, as he has already discussed potential collaboration with several platforms.

“I’ve been speaking to a number of social media companies in an effort to try and get the tech giants on board; I wasn’t dismissed out of hand,” says Dodds. “They understood the function of the DSMA notice system, which made my job slightly easier, but it never got movement further up the chain.”

One of the greatest challenges of the DSMA committee was the Snowden revelations in June 2013, which saw the publication of the global surveillance apparatus run by the United States’ NSA in cooperation with Australia’s ASD, Canada’s CSE and the UK’s GCHQ. Although the release of classified information was damaging, Dodds maintains that DSMA worked as it should have done.

“During the Snowden leaks, the DSMA Committee was not initially consulted. The media organisations that were involved in this disclosure did not consult us until some two weeks after the event,” says Dodds. “After the initial disclosure, there was very good consultation indeed.”

With more news aggregators and social media platforms emerging each year, the DSMA committee is keen to maintain links with the evolving landscape. However, the proliferation of media outlets, as well as the emergence of distributed platforms such as Mastodon, are likely to be challenging. In the case of the latter, the distributed nature of the platform means there is no central point of authority to be contacted. 

“If there’s no single point of contact, it would make it more difficult unless you speak to all the different nodes on the distributed system,” says Dodds. “If it’s a flat structure with multiple nodes, that’s going to be very difficult to advise.”

The remit of the DSMA committee extends only to the UK’s borders, but the UK population is increasingly consuming media from outlets based in other countries, such as CNN and Al Jazeera, which operate beyond the influence of the DSMA committee.

“In many circumstances, when British and American Special Forces [SF] troops are operating side by side, the Ministry of Defence doesn’t release any SPI. But if this SPI is released in the US, that means the information is widely available in the public domain,” says Dodds. “In such a case, I am unable to offer advice to the UK media not to publish because it’s already widely available in the public domain.”

For now, Dodds maintains the future of the DSMA committee will continue balancing freedom of the press with protecting the UK’s national security.

“We in the UK tend to be people who talk about things and try and find a middle way, which is often a muddling way, through,” says Dodds. “But it works, and it works for us.”

Read more about national security issues

Read more on Privacy and data protection

Data Center
Data Management