Journalism and information security: taking a safe approach

Following the recent revelatory news about state surveillance, journalists have become starkly aware of the need to protect their communications and sources. The interception of Edward Snowden’s files demonstrated that virtually any digital communication is at risk. For journalists investigating governments or other high-profile organisations, there is an inherent risk that their investigation is known and their electronic data may be at risk.

Journalists need to have a healthy paranoia and Arjen Kamphuis, an expert in security, said that the line separating ‘crazy tinfoil hat’ from ‘really well-informed’ has thinned, and journalists now need to know about the risks threatening their online security.

It has become increasingly problematic for journalists to guarantee that their communications with sources and colleagues will be secure. Without fully protecting themselves, any guarantee of security carries little worth.

Despite the threats to information security, there are some steps a journalist can take to protect their information.

Steps to take

The first measure regarding information security (or ‘infosec’) is to ensure that any hardware used is safe. Buying your own laptop, in person and with cash, is the ideal way to be certain nobody has tampered with it. This process should be made as anonymous as possible. The recent Snowden case revealed that hardware was intercepted and bugged.

The next step to securing your hardware is try and keep it with you at all times. Failing that, install some sort of tracking device, should it ever be away from you.

Keeping your hardware safe will also mean disabling some of its key features. Webcams, microphones, and built in WiFi cards can be activated remotely. Therefore, cutting the wires to the mic and using glue or filler to obscure the lens of the webcam can be smart moves. The WiFi card should be removed, and any access to the internet secured via a USB WiFi stick.

A practical approach

With the hardware protected, it is now vital to protect the software of the computer. The operating system should be an open source system; a system that is publicly available at a coding level means there will be no ‘back doors’ that can be used by those intent on intercepting information. Operating systems by Apple and Microsoft are unsuitable due to their susceptibility to malware. For a secure system, OSs such as Linux or Ubuntu are recommended.

Browsing the web is another point at which a journalist’s information can be at risk. While browsing, password and location information can be ascertained. It is also possible for malware attacks to take place. To prevent this, it is vital that a general purpose browser, such as Firefox, is used. To more securely browse and to hide your location, Tor browser may be used.

The protection of data can be maintained in a variety of ways. Simply using a USB or portable hard drive and exchanging it in person is the most secure way of sharing data. Using the same drives and hiding them is a way to keep data safe from any interception attempts. For added security, the data can be protected by encrypting the drives. Encryption software, such as TrueCrypt, can be obtained readily and will further enhance infosec practices.

Emails can be prone to security issues and it is essential that strong passwords are used.

Much of the information given here may read like the pages of a spy novel, but the threats to information security are real and can only be prevented by taking action.

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