Three ways reporters can protect sources in the digital age

by Lindsay Kalter
Oct 30, 2018 in Miscellaneous

Many reporters don’t realize that whenever they use their computers, smartphones and cameras, they’re leaving a bread crumb trail that can lead to them – and their sources.

Not knowing this--and taking measures to prevent it--can put you and your sources at risk. Take the reporters who recently interviewed computer security giant and fugitive John McAfee, who authorities wanted for questioning about the death of his neighbor. They posted a photo with McAfee chock-full of data--and led authorities right to their suspect.

Forbes reporter Kashmir Hill talked with technologist Ashkan Soltani about best practices for avoiding this type of unwanted exposure:

Scrub metadata

Authorities found McAfee after examining the photo's metadata, which gave the location and device used. All files, including Word docs and PDFs, contain this information, according to Soltani. Journalists should use metadata scrubbers like Doc Scrubber for Microsoft Word documents and JPEG Scrubber for photos. An even simpler solution for photos: turn off geotagging on phones or digital cameras to prevent the info from being recorded in the first place, Hill writes.

Don't be a "digital hoarder"

"We live in a time when it’s easy to save everything, meaning we’ve all become digital hoarders," Hill writes. "Why delete an email or chat when you can just archive it? It could come in handy later. Or it could come back to bite you later." Take precautions like switching Gmail chats to "off the record," disabling Skype's chat-saving function and resisting the urge to save emails. But what if you really need to refer to your interview notes?: Many online interactions can be copied and pasted into a Word documents for later use, and journalists can set up temporary email accounts to correspond with sources about specific stories, Soltani told Forbes.

Encrypt communications

Encoding messages may be time-consuming, but making the effort "allows you to communicate securely and protects your messages if your account is compromised,” Soltani told Forbes. Journalists and sources can use a number of encrypting tools, including Adium’s OTR for chat, PGP for Gmail, or a Virtual Private Network to create your own security layer.

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Photo CC-licensed by Americanvirus on Flickr