Why journalists should be thinking about information security and source protection

Originally published on journalism.co.uk, August 2016

Silkie Carlo, policy officer at Liberty, explains the importance of security for journalists, and what the introduction of the Investigatory Powers Bill means for them

By Caroline Scott

The Investigatory Powers Bill, introduced to the House of Commons on 1 March 2016, has provided a new framework to “govern the use and oversight of investigatory powers by law enforcement and the security and intelligence agencies,” but what does this mean for the work of investigative journalists?

Silkie Carlo, policy officer at Liberty and co-author of Information Security for Journalists, told Journalism.co.uk that reporters should be prepared for the changing working environment in the UK that comes with the update in the law.

“Journalists have to be aware that if they are doing any stories that could be of interest to the police or the security agencies, they do face a real risk of being intercepted, and that’s all made possible by this new piece of legislation that’s going through at the moment,” she said.

As the Investigatory Powers Bill can give the police and security services the ability to legally access journalists’ work, Carlo noted that sources may become aware that they are not communicating with the journalists in full confidentiality.

Recent research from the University of Sussex has found the current surveillance threats to journalists “may all but eliminate” confidential sources for investigative reporting.

Paul Lashmar, senior lecturer in journalism at the University of Sussex, interviewed 12 investigative journalists about their knowledge of surveillance powers and their impact on journalistic work.

“All through my time as a journalist there has been a behind-the-scenes battle going on to close down journalists’ access to insider sources,” he wrote for Journalism.co.uk in June. 

“The Snowden revelations – that our actions and movements are recorded digitally – raise serious questions over the ability of journalists to protect their sources whether in intelligence agencies, government or corrupt private companies.”

Carlo explained there are basic privacy tools that will enable journalists to protect themselves and their sources from the “dragnet mass surveillance” that the government practices as much as they can in their day-to-day work.

It does mean that journalists have to be prepared for some quite dramatic changes, but they are important
Silkie Carlo, Liberty

Signal is a good tool to use on your phone because it is open-source software,” she said.

“This means the tech community can look through the code and make sure there are no nasties in it – no government back doors or tracking tools.”

Like WhatsApp’s latest version, Signal uses end-to-end encryption to secure all communications you have with other users of the app, so journalists can safely send and receive text messages, media and attachments.

However, Carlo noted that no phone app is going to protect a journalist from the hacking capabilities of intelligence agencies or the police, and that if your story is of interest to them, you should either work completely offline or analyse the software and tools you are using to communicate and store data.

“It does mean that journalists have to be prepared for some quite dramatic changes, but they are important because if they don’t do that, journalists may find themselves in the very difficult position of having their sources made vulnerable to the state or having their anonymity compromised,” Carlo said.

“There’s no simple solution to these problems, but journalists must think about how they are browsing and what browsers they are using, and how they are communicating with people, on the phone or via email.”

Listen to our podcast about information security for journalists with Silkie Carlo and other experts here.

If you would like further information on how you can keep your work private and safe, read our information security for journalists guides here and here. You can also download Information Security for Journalists for free.

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