On the 4 July 2018, activist group Right2Know released a revealing report entitled Spooked: The Surveillance of South African Journalists. The report details stories of journalists such as Sam Sole, Jacques Pauw, Tom Nkosi and the SABC 8 and provides more information about South African security agencies.
The report also includes recommendations on how journalists can be protected, especially by service providers such as Vodacom, MTN and CellC.
“It is beyond urgent that South Africa essentially rebuilds its intelligence structures from the ground up, in particular the State Security Agency and the police’s Crime Intelligence Division.” – Spooked: The Surveillance of South African Journalists – A Report by Right2Know
It just confirmed what many journalists had already suspected: Someone is always watching.
It’s essential for journalists to protect themselves – and their sources. Here are some practical safety tips, websites, software, and apps for the tech-smart journalist.
Five practical safety tips for journalists
1. Knowledge is power
Learn more about technology and new developments: This includes cybersecurity, new software updates and security flaws; also keep your finger on the pulse of what other journalists over the world are doing to keep themselves safe.
2. Paper trails can pose a danger
Writing sensitive information down on paper poses a huge security risk and can be a danger to your sources. Stick with digitised, cloud stored and encrypted information.
3. Make use of burner devices
Burner devices are meant to be used temporarily and discarded; while you don’t have to discard a device, use a cheaper phone (without sensitive information) for everyday travelling, and have more than one laptop should one be seized or stolen.
4. Encryption is never completely safe
Don’t become relaxed in your methods just because you assume you’re protected. Every poison has an antidote, and every encryption has a key. Common sense (and multi-level encryption methods) go a very long way.
5. Painfully obvious things
Many painfully obvious things can also pose a danger: Taking phone conversations within earshot of others, writing a source’s details down on a piece of paper. Again, common sense.
Websites, software, and apps
Switch your email accounts
E-mail presents one of the biggest vulnerabilities for journalists and their sources. Especially sensitive stories will warrant a completely separate e-mail account to your own, and ensure that your main e-mail account remains well protected.
ProtonMail is a Swiss-developed secure e-mail server, and highly recommended for anyone with sensitive information being transmitted through e-mail. There’s a way to recover your passwords, but beware that using password recovery will wipe the entire e-mail account clean.
Mailvelope is a highly recommended and open source e-mail encryption tool, developed with the idea of incorporating itself into your existing e-mail client. Also take a look at a similar encryption program called Pretty Good Privacy.
CounterMail is another encrypted e-mail client, and one that works around PGP-encryption.
Encrypt your flash drives
Flash drives are great for storing information, but mean nothing if they are hacked, misplaced or stolen.
IronKey USB Flash Drives are worth their price tag. They’re equipped with special automatic encryption, and they have a useful instant-erase option for sensitive data in danger. Some USB drives (like this Encrypted Flash Drive) come with a PIN lock.
Signal is a free, open source communication tool designed with journalists in mind. All communication is encrypted on both ends, making it especially popular, and users can send files, or make voice or video calls.
Telegram Messenger is an encrypted open source communication program that allows for heavy encryption of files – and has an added self-destruction feature for sensitive data.
Safe search engines
Using your main search engine while you are logged in while searching for sensitive information is a terrible idea. Use a safe search engine instead.
DuckDuckGo is the search engine that promises not to store your information or your services, and it’s a hugely popular option for tech experts and journalists.
If it’s a Google search you want, StartPage is a search engine that duplicates the search results of the search engine giant, but without the privacy invasion of having your searches saved.
Search Encrypt does just that and encrypts your search terms to hide them from any prying eyes.
Other safety tools
Salama is a tool designed with assessing a journalist’s potential risk – and providing them with subsequent safety tips that are relevant to their risk-levels.
Alex J. Coyne is a freelance journalist, author and language practitioner. He has written for a diverse range of international publications, blogs and clients including People Magazine, Funds for Writers, The Dollar Stretcher, The Investor, CollegeHumor and Great Bridge Links, among others. Find more information about his writing and courses aimed at journalists at Alex J. Coyne.