Privacy and Security in Online Journalism

Communicating and sharing information is fast and easy, but it can also be dangerous as the information shared online is seldom wholly private

Privacy and Security in Online Journalism
Katie Metz // Adriana Lacy Consulting

With so many platforms for journalists to share and collect information, it’s essential to understand online journalism's privacy and security issues and how to protect yourself and others.

Online platforms and other technologies have been good and bad for journalism. Of course, information is now easily accessible; but in some ways, this creates more work as journalists search to ensure the online information is accurate.

Communicating and sharing information is fast and easy, but it can also be dangerous as the information shared online is seldom wholly private. In this article, we’ll discuss privacy and security in online journalism and how you can discover and share information safely as a journalist.

Protect Your Accounts

Most online accounts offer some form of protection for its users. Use the following guidelines to ensure your accounts are adequately protected:

  1. Enable two-factor authentication (2FA) whenever it is offered. 2FA adds an additional layer of protection by requiring further proof of identity after a password is entered.
  2. When the platform offers an option to receive notice of suspicious login attempts, sign up for those options.
  3. Use authenticator apps to generate a private code to access the platform you are using.

Guard Your Messages

Communication is more accessible than ever today with varying messaging apps and services. How can you be sure your information is guarded when sending messages into cyberspace? As a journalist, discretion is a must. Look for a system that uses end-to-end encryption and provides a communication service that only allows the selected users to share it. Possible end-to-end encryption communication services are WhatsApp, Signal, and Facebook Messenger.

Be Careful What You Share

Journalists, in general, must be careful with discreet information that could put their sources in harm's way. The risk of letting information slip increases with online platforms. When using a platform, consider the following:

  1. What are the privacy settings on the platform, if any?
  2. Are there any documents or messages you should remove if the privacy settings aren’t protective enough?
  3. Confirm end-to-end encryption for messages so no one else can access them.
  4. Remember that some platforms won’t let you delete items once they are shared. Think clearly before sharing.

Images and personal data are two other areas to be mindful of as you share information. Let’s look at how you can protect your privacy for both starting with images:

  1. Remove all data (metadata) that describes when and where the photo is taken.
  2. If you don’t want an image stolen, don’t post it.
  3. If safety is an issue, don’t show your face in a photo.

To protect personal data, remember the following:

  1. When you need personal data removed from a platform, you may be able to do so yourself; however, some platforms won’t allow it. You must contact them and ask them to do so.
  2. Unless absolutely necessary, do not share your address, phone number, or any other personal information online.
  3. Your IP address allows others to find you. If you require privacy, you must use a VPN to protect your identity and location. A VPN encrypts the information that passes through on the internet and doesn’t allow the ISPs to monitor the activity of the address using the VPN. In other words, you can’t be traced.

Educate Your Sources

You take every necessary precaution to protect your privacy and security online, but it’s useless if your sources aren’t doing the same. For example, using a VPN when sharing information and a messaging system with end-to-end encryption won't matter if your sources use an IP address and an unprotected messaging system to communicate and share information with you. Politely share your requirements beforehand to protect everyone involved.

Use Caution When Meeting

We live in an age where cameras are everywhere, and GPS tracks your every move. Don’t assume that because you’re meeting in an out-of-the-way café, no one will know where you are or whom you are speaking with. One precaution you can take to meet face-to-face safely is to turn the phone to airplane mode or, even better, turn it off completely.

Don’t Forget To Protect Your Documents

Even though a stored document is not actively shared, there's a high chance it isn't protected either. Documents floating around in the cloud aren’t out of reach from those who know how to retrieve them. There are different cloud services, so choose one that uses the best privacy policies. Here are a few more ideas to help protect the documents you store on your computer:

  1. Use complicated passwords and change them frequently. You can password-protect Microsoft Word, Excel, and many other types of documents.
  2. Use apps that encrypt files before uploading.
  3. Don’t assume that well-known names are best for document storage. There are lesser known services, such as SecureDrop and OnionShare that offer greater privacy and secure storage.

Browse Cautiously

Searching for information online is necessary in journalism; however, it must be done cautiously. One of the best things you can do when browsing online is to use an alternative search engine instead of the most obvious ones like Google and Bing. Smaller search engines like StartPage and DuckDuckGo do not automatically save your search history. Google and Bing do, which means it is easy to find out what you are looking for and which sources you use. You can, thankfully, change your settings in these platforms to not automatically save your search history. Still, it’s risky since glitches happen and you may be tracked without realizing it.

Also, as mentioned before, a VPN and private browsing mode are both helpful in protecting your search information. Unprotected searches put you, your sources, and your story at risk.

Be Aware of Transparency Reports

The government can request to see data and remove it at any time. There are companies that often release transparency reports so the public can see who is requesting data from them and what they're requesting. In the reports, you can see which search engines provide the information. With that knowledge, you can make an informed decision about which search engines are the safest with your information.

Don’t assume that more significant search engines and well-known messaging systems and platforms are the safest. Sometimes, smaller ones are better at keeping up with tight security for their users. At the end of the day, common sense prevails. You are a journalist and likely experience gut feelings often. Use your gut to guide you, and when in doubt, take conservative actions to protect your privacy and security online.

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