Maria Xynou discusses the importance of encryption for journalistic work.
Writing a good story is no easy task. The generation and execution of story ideas requires inspiration, the right connections, and a knack for being in the right place at the right time. The most important element of all is good strategy. Today, in light of widespread surveillance, good strategy largely entails the use of anonymity software and encryption.
Code is nothing new, and neither is its use in strategy. Secret writing dates as far back as Herodotus, “the father of history.” According to Simon Singh:
“History is punctuated with codes. They have decided the outcomes of battles and led to the death of kings and queens.”
Queen Mary of Scots used cipher in the letters she wrote to a group of English Catholic noblemen who intended on replacing Queen Elizabeth with the Scottish Queen. The main reason why Queen Mary was executed was because Thomas Phelippes, England’s expert on breaking codes, was able to decipher her messages which plotted against Queen Elizabeth and to use them as evidence.
Today, intelligence agencies are able to intercept almost all communications indiscriminately – regardless of whether or not one is plotting against a government – which means that the use of encryption is more urgent now than ever.
The following three arguments are in favor of the utilization of encryption by modern-day journalists.
Encryption helps ensure the exclusivity of a journalist’s story
Whether examining high-risk security issues or discussing the latest fashion trends, journalists usually want their stories to be exclusive. Most journalists today do their writing on computers and the use of encryption is one of the few things that helps maintain exclusivity.
As such, Edward Snowden required journalist Glenn Greenwald to install encryption software on his computer before leaking documents to him. If Glenn Greenwald had not encrypted the files leaked to him by Edward Snowden, it is likely that none of us would now have access to hundreds of confidential documents that illustrate the top-secret surveillance programs of intelligence agencies. These documents prove that almost everything, from our browsing habits to our downloaded files, is under global surveillance. When conducting online research, encryption can potentially divert prying eyes and preserve exclusivity.
When journalists refrain from using anonymity software, such as Tor, while doing online research, countless third parties, including internet service providers, corporations and the intelligence agencies of various countries, can potentially view almost all of their online activity. As such, not only does a story run the risk of losing its exclusivity, but searching the “wrong” word or accessing the “wrong” website might also draw attention from undesired third parties.
Journalists often write stories that challenge political and economic interests and which question the status quo – stories that might directly or indirectly conflict with those in power. Such powerful groups and individuals often have the resources to ensure that such stories are never released, but encryption serves as an effective counter strategy. Edward Snowden made it clear that “properly implemented strong crypto systems are one of the few things that you can rely on….”
Locks and alarm systems might not always keep an extremely skilled thief from entering a house, but these are precautions that most people take regardless. Similarly, encryption is the lock that protects digital homes. No journalist wants third parties secretly accessing their digital files or interfering with their story, the same way that no one wants a stranger to gain access to his or her home without his or her knowledge or consent.
As such, the exclusivity of a story largely relies on the use of digital security tools.
Encryption helps protect journalists
Journalists who write exposing stories which challenge interests are often targeted by those in power. But regardless of whether a journalist exposes top-secret cases or writes about conventional topics, it is generally quite difficult to accurately assess a threat model. The use of encryption is a solid preemptive strategy.
Last year, an Angolan journalist known for exposing high-level corruption was revealed to be a target of surveillance. Security researcher Jacob Appelbaum detected spyware on the Angolan journalist’s Mac, which was compromised as a result of a spear phishing attack. Furthermore, Ethiopian journalists have been targeted by their government with spyware which is designed to steal files and passwords and to intercept Skype calls and instant messages.
This is concerning as, in some parts of the world, being a target of surveillance may result in various forms of retribution. Ethiopia, for example, jails more journalists than any other African country. The use of encryption, however, can help mitigate such risks and potentially provide journalists both digital and physical security. When journalists refrain from using encryption, not only do they expose themselves to the risks of surveillance, but should they become targets, they also risk exposing their friends and family members as well.
The very nature of journalistic work makes it likely that journalists are high on the list of surveillance targets within civil society. Privacy protects individuals from those in power. Safely and autonomously practicing journalism includes the encryption of files and communications.
Journalists have a duty to protect their sources
Trust is an essential component of good journalism, as journalists need sources to trust them with sensitive data or material. It is unlikely, however, that sources will trust journalists to protect sensitive data if those journalists cannot protect their own information. According to Morgan Marquis-Boire:
“If you can’t protect your privacy and that of your sources, it’s debatable whether you can actually practice journalism in the traditional sense.”
This is perfectly illustrated by the example of Glenn Greenwald who, had he not forced himself to learn to use encryption, probably would not have covered what some consider to be “the most significant leaks in U.S. History.” According to his source, Edward Snowden:
“Encryption matters, and it is not just for spies and philanderers… There are people out there you would like to hear from who will never be able to contact you without knowing their messages cannot be read in transit.”
In light of the revelations of widespread surveillance, the exchange of unencrypted emails with sources puts them at risk. Engaging in online chat with sources without using privacy software such as OTR puts them at risk. Storing a source’s files on a computer without utilizing encryption also endangers the source’s security.
The use of encryption is no longer as complicated as it used to be. Online hands-on guides such as Security-in-a-box provide tools and tactics which assist the general public in learning how to secure their communications.
In light of the Snowden revelations, mass surveillance can no longer be dismissed as a conspiracy theory—it is a fact. As such, all journalists should learn to work safely in the digital world through the use of encryption: for themselves, their sources, and their stories.