Tips for journalists to protect sources’ online privacy

WASHINGTON – Revelations that the National Security Agency is collecting data on millions of Americans are added evidence that journalists need to be more careful about their online privacy, especially in protecting information from whistle blowers and other sources, encryption experts say.

In conjunction with the “Stop Watching Us” surveillance rally held in late October, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit that advocates to protect privacy and civil liberties, and Public Citizen, a consumer rights’ group, organized a “Crypto Party” focusing on teaching journalists how to use secure messaging and storage services, encrypted email accounts and secure programs such as Tor and Secure Drop.

In conjunction with the NSA surveillance rally in October, encryption experts taught journalists and citizens how to securely communicate online. Jayna Omaye/Medill

Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who leaked private documents to the press, used similar encryption tools to alert journalists about the government’s surveillance programs, according to a New York Times article.

By using an encrypted email, which prevents third parties from reading the message’s content, Snowden was able to secretly and successfully correspond with Laura Poitras, a film producer, and send an outline of the government’s secret surveillance programs, The New York Times reported.

“So getting journalists specifically to sign up for tools actually not only helps make the journalist more secure,” said Amie Stepanovich, director of EPIC’s Domestic Surveillance Project, “but it helps make the sources and the people who are whistle blowing and the people who are trying to get out sensitive documents much more secure and much less likely to be prosecuted for illegal actions.”

Encryption experts emphasized the importance and responsibility of journalists to ensure that their sources’ identities are kept hidden from online hackers and government surveillance.

“You can never be guaranteed that anything can be secure,” said Kurt Opsahl, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization that helps protect consumers’ digital rights. “You can trust in the math that there are good crypto systems out there, but implementing them is difficult … and you just do the best you can.”

Encryption experts recommended that journalists use Tor and Secure Drop to protect their sources from online surveillance.

Originally created for the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory to securely share private government information, the free Tor browser is now used by journalists and their sources for anonymous communication. The software makes tracking user’s location, visits to web sites, online posts, instant messaging and other communications more difficult to track.

“So what a Tor browser bundle tries to do is make every client look like every other client,” said William Budington, a web developer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Basically, the Tor network, what it does is when you’re accessing a service, you provide some information to that service. For instance, your IP address. The Tor network generally tries to basically and has successfully anonymize users’ IP addresses when they access services.”

Because Budington said a user’s Internet Protocol address can be used to pinpoint a person’s identity, he said it’s vital for journalists and sources to use this free software.

For more information or to download Tor, visit

Secure Drop
This free open-source whistleblower system allows sources to anonymously and securely submit documents and other information to journalists and news organizations. Some media outlets, such as the New Yorker already use this system, said Trevor Timm, executive director and co-founder of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, an organization that helps support journalism that exposes government mismanagement and corruption.

“It’s like a Wikileaks-type system that can even prevent the reporter from knowing who their source is if the source chooses,” Timm said.

The system is integrated into news organizations’ websites and enables sources to upload a document, which will then be securely transferred to a journalist at the media organization.

However, Timm said, even though Secure Drop has been tested for sound security, sources and journalists still need to be careful when communicating online.

“I think protecting sources of journalists’ communications is the No. 1 press freedom fight of the 21st century,” Timm said. “They [the government] don’t need to call reporters to testify anymore [against sources]. They can just subpoena their emails. So for that reason, we want to better protect the digital trails that sources and journalists leave behind, and we hope Secure Drop is the first step in that process.”

To download Secure Drop, visit

For more information on these tips or for more advice about online privacy, visit:

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