By Sasu Siegelbaum
Online Media Ethics Beat
It seems that each week there is more fallout from former CIA employee Edward Snowden’s revelations about the US government’s digital surveillance of its own citizens and foreign governments. If nothing else, those revelations, along with recent cases of hacking at major US newspapers’ websites, have made everyone — from bloggers — to big name journalists more wary about online security.
Day 3 at the Online News Associations 2013 conference in Atlanta, Ga., featured a host of discussions about the ethics of online security, protecting sources and data, and security tools for journalists. The day started with a Keynote session, called “Journalism in the Age of Surveillance,” lead by Janine Gibson, Editor in Chief at The Guardian US, along with Micah Lee, Staff Technologist at Electronic Frontier Foundation; and Nabiha Syed, a media lawyer at the Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz law firm and founder of Drone U. The event, which went from 9:00 to 10:00 a.m., was one of the conference’s main draws, which the ONA highlighted in its blog more than a week ago. The session focused on “how to accurately hold government accountable and what journalists — and the public — should know about emerging technology during a time of unprecedented surveillance and data collection.”
Anyone reading The Guardian over the past few months knows that the newspaper has led the coverage of both Edward Snowden and mass surveillance news, thanks in large part to Glenn Greenwald, who broke the Snowden story before any other news organization could get their hands on it. In the session, however, Gibson urged other news organizations to step up their coverage of this important topic, explaining, “The NSA story isn’t going anywhere. The more people reporting on it the better.” She also discussed the lengths that the newspaper went to make ethical considerations before releasing several such stories, noting that the newspaper consulted the governments of both the United States and Great Britain.
According to the Twitter feeds of several participants, Syed told the audience that we have now reached a point where “technology has eliminated practical limitations on gathering information on citizens, also saying that forced decryption was, “good as ethical responsibility to a source, but still not a lot you can do.” With that in mind, the speakers insisted that journalists now have an increased ethical responsibility to protect their sources. Micah Lee noted that more journalists than ever before are sending encrypted emails and taking extra safety measures to protect their work, but that encryption alone is not enough.
The ONA’s “student newsroom,” a group of journalism students blogging on the session, even compiled a how-to guide (“Improving Yours Digital Hygiene”) with links to security programs for protecting sources and one’s work. Indeed, this was one of the biggest takeaways from the keynote session — the need for journalists to protect themselves from online surveillance and security hacks, a lesson that later sessions expanded on.
Mike Tigas, a fellow at the Knight-Mozilla foundation and ProPublica, lead the second online security discussion of the day, [For Journalism] Keeping Under the Security Radar. The three-hour session took a hands-on approach to digital security issues, with Tigas discussing several ways for journalists to protect their data and sources. “Guard your e-mail like your bank account online–so don’t use the same password for everything,” Tigas counseled participants. He even suggested that “snail mail” remained the most secure way for journalists to get confidential documents from sources.
Meanwhile, two other sessions, “Protecting All Acts of Journalism: Press Freedom and the Fifth Estate,” and “Threat Modeling: Determining Digital Security for You” dealt with many of the same themes. “Protecting All Acts…” was especially timely, given the upcoming release of the Wikileaks-themed film, “The Fifth Estate,” and indeed one of the session’s hosts, Josh Singer, wrote the film’s script. Singer was joined by Emily Bell, Director of the Tow Center For Digital Journalism at Columbia University, and Josh Stearns, Journalism and Public Media Campaign Director at Free Press. The speakers addressed the topic of free press and how to protect it through policy and practices and actions by newsrooms.
“Threat Modeling” (10:30-11:30 a.m.) continued the practical online security discussion with speaker Jonathan Stray, a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the University of Columbia, discussing recent stories and bouncing best online journalism security ideas around with each other.
Among the sessions at the Online News Association’s 2013 conference, “Threat Modeling” and “[For Journalism] Keeping Under the Security Radar” may have been the most universally applicable, as hacking, phishing, and surveillance affect us all, whether we realize it or not. The fact is that surveillance technology has completely changed the stakes. No longer, these sessions highlighted, can journalists just assume that their data, email, and sources are safe. Rather, we must all take extra precautions to protect ourselves. In fact, we have an ethical responsibility to do so.