Three takeaways from CIMA’s report on digital security for journalists

bySam Berkhead
Mar 7, 2016 in Journalist Safety

When it comes to online security, many journalists worldwide aren’t protecting themselves as well as they should, a new report from the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) revealed. Oftentimes, journalists simply don’t know about the safety tools available to them.

The report, authored by former ICFJ Knight Fellow Javier Garza Ramos, found that while more than half of journalists surveyed — about 60 percent — use digital security tools to protect their safety, there’s still plenty of room for improvement, particularly with the safety tools they use.

"The needs for security tools that journalists around the world have are vast and diverse," Garza Ramos wrote. "Journalists have become more vulnerable not only while on assignment in dangerous places, but also in their daily routines, at home, in the newsroom or on the road, as digital surveillance increases."

Knowing this, what can media organizations and app developers do to make their journalism safety tools more widely disseminated? Here are IJNet’s top takeaways from the report:

Communications tools

Of the 154 journalists surveyed for the report, 70 percent said they do not use digital tools to protect their communications, such as emails, phone calls and text messages. Still, tools that protect digital communications had one of the survey’s highest positive response rates, a trend attributed to increased awareness of government surveillance and hacking.

Some communications tools mentioned include Riseup and Hushmail; PGP email encryption; encrypted messaging services like Peerio and Chatsecure; as well as Jitsi and Adium, which are not for mobile devices. Some respondents also communicate with colleagues over a Virtual Private Network (VPN) or use the TOR browser to hide their location while working.

Yet other respondents remarked that they use tools they think are secure, but aren’t — an indicator that more journalists need to be trained to distinguish between secure and nonsecure tools.

Secure file-sharing

When it comes to digital tools that help journalists store and share files with their colleagues, about 30 percent of survey respondents said they use these tools. Much like secure communications tools, journalists seek out secure file-sharing programs to protect themselves from possible government surveillance, particularly in Europe and the U.S. The tool most mentioned by respondents, TrueCrypt, is the same encryption system that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden uses. Other popular tools included Spideroak, Tresorit and OnionShare, as well as VPN. Some respondents mentioned SecureReporter, a Web-based tool developed by ICFJ.

Again, many respondents reported using file-sharing tools they perceived to be encrypted or secure, but actually aren’t, the report found. For example, some journalists said they use Google Drive or Dropbox as “encrypted tools,” when neither file storage tool is actually encrypted.

Moving forward

Journalists’ adoption of other digital safety tools like risk assessment, device encryption or geo-tracking remained fairly marginal, the report found. That’s not to say that such tools don’t exist — journalists just don’t know how to find them.

Given digital safety tools’ limited adoption, the report acknowledges that there is no one-size-fits-all solution; the differences between journalists’ safety needs vary widely across different regions.

However, there are some steps that can be taken. A crucial starting point to expanding journalists’ awareness lies in education, whether that takes the form of a newsroom safety plan or education efforts from a media development organization, the report stated. Additionally, journalists who use these tools should be encouraged to discuss them with their colleagues, including the tools’ uses, benefits and shortcomings.

To read the full report, click here.

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via CWCS Managed Hosting.