For centuries, journalists have been willing to go to prison to protect their sources. Back in 1848, New York Herald correspondent John Nugent spent a month in jail for refusing to tell a U.S. Senate committee his source for a leak exposing the secret approval of a treaty with Mexico. In a digital age, however, journalists need more than steadfast conviction to keep themselves and their sources safe. Government intelligence agencies, terrorist groups, and criminal syndicates are using electronic surveillance to learn what journalists are doing and who their sources are. It seems many journalists are not keeping pace.
This week, a Columbia Journalism Review blog entry looked into whether U.S.-based journalism schools were teaching cyber-security skills. "I spoke with a number of journalism schools," wrote Alysia Santo, "and found a range of approaches." Emily Bell, director of Columbia University's Tow Center for Digital Journalism, told Santo that issues of cyber security bother her "immensely," while conceding that most students are not receiving training in information protection. In fact, Santo found only journalism students double-majoring in computer science are able to take classes involving cyber-security.
Researcher, blogger, and cyber-security expert Christopher Soghoian helped bring the matter to light in October on The New York Times op-ed page. "Sadly, operational computer security is still not taught in most journalism schools, and poor data security practices remain widespread in news organizations," wrote Soghoian. "Confidential information is sent over regular phone lines and via text messages and email, all of which are easy to intercept. Few journalists use secure-communication tools, even ones that are widely available and easy to use. "
Digital security lapses are hardly isolated to journalists in the United States and developed nations. Professional and citizen journalists alike have learned to their detriment that their electronic communications can be intercepted or copied. In 2009 China sentenced a Tibetan guide to three years in prison after intercepting his emails and text messages that authorities claimed "distorted the facts and true situation regarding social stability in the Tibetan area." Throughout much of the last decade, the Colombian intelligence service illegally intercepted emails, eavesdropped on phone conversations, and conducted surveillance against prominent critical reporters such as Hollman Morris, a Nieman Fellow.
Last year, in September, residents discovered the remains of a Mexican journalist who used the handle, "The Girl from Nuevo Laredo," on a popular local social media site to report on violence by drug traffickers. The body of María Elizabeth Macías Castro was found with a computer keyboard nearby and a chilling note written in the first-person, as if by the victim herself: I am the Girl from Neuvo Laredo and I am here for writing on social media.
Today bloggers and journalists in nations like Syria and Bahrain face both electronic surveillance and reprisals for reporting news. Over the past three years, nearly half of all journalists imprisoned worldwide have been bloggers or others reporting online. Yet journalists in many nations around the world have yet to learn the technical concepts and techniques to protect themselves and their sources.