Digital Security For Journalists

When Linkability is Acceptable

In the bulk of day-to-day journalism, source linkability is not a paramount concern. We tend to prefer our sources “on the record” in the first place, and once quoted in an article their connection to us is public–and published–knowledge.

At the same time, concision isn’t the only reason we don’t publish entire interview transcripts. Most source conversations contain a mix of “on” and “off the record” remarks; not everything we discover in an interview should be discoverable. Yet if these exchanges take place through (unencrypted) email, shared documents, or chat applications, “discoverable”–both legally and technically–is exactly what they are.

As in the physical world, no digital security measure is absolute, and ultimately the onus falls on individual journalist or organization to determine which measures should be baseline and which applied only in certain cases. Whatever the decision, however, its consequences will most substantially be borne by your source, not yourself. A situation need not be life-threatening to be a significant risk: Loss of a job or professional standing, family and marital consequences, financial and/or legal liabilities can all be the fallout of source communications coming to light. In the majority of cases, the risk you take is not your own.

“We’re allowed to make choices about risks to ourselves, not our sources.”
–Jonathan Stray

Encrypt to Protect

The main key to protecting your communications with known sources is simple: Encrypt, encrypt, encrypt.44 Where encryption isn’t possible for legal, technical, or resource reasons, consider communication alternatives that may be more familiar to your correspondents or have better legal protections, such as postal mail.

No matter the communication method, there is a good range of solutions out there for all kinds of devices. Android devices tend to have a greater variety of open-source options, but there are several trusted cryptographers making solutions for Apple devices as well. In general, authentication and encryption require that both parties use the particular app in question; this can made Web-based solutions like CryptoCat valuable for journalists trying to move their sources to more secure communications channels, since only a browser plug-in is required.45

Web Browsing

If you’ve ever worked in a large organization, chances are you’ve had to use a “virtual private network,” or VPN at one point or another. VPNs funnel all of your Web traffic through an encrypted tunnel into the network for which they are configured. This provides two types of protection for Web activity, in that it both encrypts your traffic and obfuscates its origin, by sending it first to your organization’s network–wherever in the world that is–and then out to the broader Internet, no matter where you are. Using your company VPN or a similar commercial solution like Private Internet Access or TorGuard to route your Web traffic through a known network can help protect you from a potentially hostile Web provider.46 Keep in mind, however, that while the ISP you’re on will only know that you’re using a VPN, your company or VPN provider will be able to see all of the Web requests you make. An IPsec VPN will route not just your browser traffic but all of your Web traffic (e.g. for applications like DropBox etc.) through the VPN.

To truly anonymize the location of your Web browsing activity, however, the Tor Browser Bundle is your best bet. The Tor Browser is an open-source, cross-platform browser, described in more detail below, that is an important tool for anonymizing your location online, especially in places where VPNs may be banned outright.


Email presents a special security problem for a number of reasons, but the first step you can take is not to store your emails on any Web server longer than necessary. Set up a local email application like the free, open-source and cross-platform Thunderbird on your computer and connect it to your regular email account. Even if you don’t use the application much on a day-to-day basis, you can use it to follow a “download-and-delete” protocol where every three months or so, you download all of your emails that are more than a few months old and archive them locally. After you’ve backed them up to an external hard drive, delete the copies on your Web-based email provider. You will still be able to save and search your old emails, but since they reside on your own physical computer, they will be better protected against subpoena-based searches.

Thunderbird also provides support for encrypting and authenticating email, through its Enigmail add-on and GPG.

GPG (GnuPrivacy Guard) is the open-source version of PGP (“Pretty Good Privacy”), which was created by Phil Zimmerman.

While setting up some of these systems can take several steps, once you’ve generated your public-private key pair

For more information on working with GPG, see the GPG Mini How To

and connected it to your email application, all of this happens in the background. The software can store the public keys of your correspondents, and performs the necessary encryption/decryption and signing of your messages with the click of a button. Though Google recently announced an “end-to-end” encryption option for Gmail, the fact that it’s still decrypted in the browser makes it less private than options like Enigmail, where the only decrypted version exists on your physical computer.


There is a range of encrypted chat tools for both desktop and mobile that can be used with your existing services (e.g., GoogleTalk) while still encrypting and authenticating your conversations. Adium

Adium also lets you manage contacts for multiple chat services through a single interface.

for Mac and Jitsi for PC are open source and work with most major chat services. CryptoCat, meanwhile, is both open source and Web-based, requiring only a simple plugin installation.

On mobile, ChatSecure for Android works with GoogleTalk. SilentCircle

Phil Zimmerman is a founder of Silent Circle.

and Wickr

Noted security researcher Dan Kaminsky and Whitfield Diffie are advisors to Wickr.

, have apps for both Android and iPhone that support encrypted chat as well as encrypted text messaging and voices calls with other users of the app.

Text Messaging

A good Android solution for texts communications is TextSecure, which supports message-level encryption and authentication and also encrypts the texts stored on your phone. SilentCircle and Wickr, mentioned above, also offer encrypted text messaging.


Encrypted voice and video communication over the Web depend on secure “SIP”

SIP, or “Session Initiation Protocol” is similar to http, but used for exchanging multimedia and voice data over the Web. Just as secure Web connections need to be https, a secure SIP service is required for encrypted voice services.

services, such as those supported by or, which can handle these more complex data streams. When used with these services, Jitsi supports encrypted voice calls from PCs, while OSTel does the same for Android devices via the CsipSimple service. SilentCircle and Wickr offer encrypted voice call support. RedPhone also provides an encrypted-voice option, but relies on your existing phone number, so should not be used where unlinkability is required.