High-tech security information needs better dissemination

After the London launch of CPJ’s Attacks on the Press at the Frontline Club this week, I had an opportunity to talk to a number of young journalists setting out to regions where reporters are frequently at risk. As CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon noted, these discussions took on an extra poignancy the next day, with the news of the death of Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik.

What stood out in the conversation was how often the reporters I spoke to were aware generally of the dangers from using high-tech tools, but felt they were being provided with little practical guidance, either from the media organizations that employed them, or from external sources.

One reporter, due to leave on assignment for Pakistan in a few weeks, was pursuing his own research on how to bypass local censorship and protect his communications from surveillance. His decisions (using a virtual private network, keeping his contact list off his mobile phone) were sensible, but were entirely down to his own research. In that sense, he is being faced with the the info security equivalent of packing off a correspondent into a war zone with no insurance and a first aid kit.

At CPJ, we’ve been long aware of this widening gulf between the growing risk of journalist’s use of technology and institutional knowledge, which is one of the reasons why our  forthcoming journalists’ security manual has a chapter specifically on information security. But one of the real challenges in providing any advice is that the environment keeps changing. Substantive advice depends on understanding the capabilities of those targeting journalists, as well as new countermeasures that might be taken.

The ongoing discussion of whether Colvin and Ochlik’s location was uncovered by tracking their satellite phone transmissions highlights that problem. It’s no surprise to technologists that satphones leak location data. As a matter of simple physics, satphones broadcast a signal that can be detected, and which looks very different from the more prevalent mobile phones. What is novel is the idea that journalists, who may use satphones more than others in an urban war zone like Homs, may be specifically identified via their satphone use, and that the Syrian government forces might have the capability to act on that information.

What are the best sources for the knowledge that journalists need? Unsurprisingly, it’s journalists — both those on the ground, and those researching the companies that make and sell such tools to regimes like Syria. But identifying the policies and equipment that can lead to fatalities is only part of the story. We need to turn the research into effective, practical advice. What we need is better and faster and public sharing of such intelligence between reporters, media organizations, and activists.