Journalists around the world need to be educated on digital security tools to confront risky situations, report says

As cyber attacks become more common for journalists and news organizations, more cyber security courses and guidelines for protection will follow. Yet, according to a researcher studying the issue, most journalists are not taking the necessary measures to protect themselves.

“The needs for security tools that journalists around the world have are vast and diverse,” wrote Mexican journalist Javier Garza Ramos. “Journalists have become more vulnerable not only while on assignment in dangerous places, but also in their daily routines, at home, in the newsroom, or on the road, as digital surveillance increases.”

Garza, a former Knight Fellow at the International Center for Journalists and former editorial director of El Siglo de Torreón, authored “Journalist security in the digital world: A survey: Are we using the right tools?” recently published by the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) with support from the National Endowment for Democracy.

With help from international organizations, Garza asked 154 journalists from around the world about their use of digital security tools. Thirty-three of those journalists were from Latin America.

Are journalists encrypting telephone calls, emails or chat sessions? What about files they share with other journalists? Do they protect their laptops, tablets and mobile phones? There are even apps on the market that can help journalists ensure their physical safety if they’re on a dangerous assignment or regularly report in a risky area.

Results from Garza’s survey showed that about 60 percent of the 154 respondents do not use any type of digital tool for physical or digital security.  In Latin America, about 73 percent of correspondents (24 of 33) said they do not “regularly use digital tools for general security,” according to the survey report.

“The regional differences in usage reflect the level of assimilation of technology in journalism,” the report says.

There are also regional differences concerning the kinds of dangers more frequently confronted.

“North American and European journalists are more concerned with digital protections and more knowledgeable about technology,” according to the report. “While those in Latin America, Africa, and Asia give more weight to physical security but are more vulnerable to digital attacks because they don’t know about the tools to counter the threat.”

Journalists using security tools are doing so more frequently in communications, including encrypted emails, chats or calls, and in encrypted storage and sharing of documents, Garza told the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.

Yet, in the global survey, “the number of people saying they use at least one tool for [protecting online communications] was 30 percent,” the study found. The percentage was the same concerning whether the journalists surveyed routinely protect files for storage or sharing. Further, those that protect communications also protect their files, according to the survey.

“The survey also reveals that some journalists are using tools that they think are safe but are actually not (like thinking that clouds like Dropbox and Google Drive that are encrypted), so it suggests that there is an awareness of the need for digital security but little education,” Garza said.

When it comes to encrypting devices including computers, tablets and smartphones, the survey revealed that only 17 percent said they do.

“However, there appears to be an increasing number of converts to device encryption, after reporters have told stories about their digital devices searched or seized by border guards at checkpoints or by police and military forces or criminal groups in high-risk areas,” the report said.

Garza also asked the journalists whether they use digital tools for their personal security, specifically for tracking their geographical location while on assignment. “Only 15 journalists said they regularly use digital tools to establish their locations,” and not all knew about the special apps designed for the purpose, according to the report. Additionally, just seven journalists said they carry out risk assessments before leaving for an assignment and about 44 percent said they consult online safety guides specific to journalists.

The report also found that 45 percent of those surveyed had a situation in which a tool may have helped and in about half of those instances, a tool did exist.

In the report, Garza named various tools for digital security mentioned by the journalists he surveyed. As digital security is a rapidly evolving field, new tools are being discovered and used routinely. Some are still being developed or updated to address security concerns.

While the study recognized that those surveyed “cannot be considered as representative,” it added that “the fact that they are reporters and editors around the world that are linked to the networks formed by international organizations suggest that they have a higher level of engagement on issues affecting the safety of journalists.”

When asked whether he thought cyber or digital attacks were happening more frequently or whether journalists are more aware that they are happening, Garza said he thinks it’s both.

“I think it’s happening more because technology is getting more and more available and it’s getting simpler to use,” Garza said. “It’s also happening more because more journalists now have digital activity than five years ago, for example. Also I think we’re being more aware of it.”

He added, “there are a lot of journalists who have no idea that they are being digitally attacked. They don’t know that somebody’s reading their emails or they might suspect it but they can’t know for sure because they don’t have the proper tools or the proper training, which is really not that hard.”

However, Garza said the recurrence of attacks is making journalists more aware of their risks and they are being more proactive in seeking training and tools on how to defend against threats.

Garza formerly oversaw the site Periodistas en Riesgo ("Journalists at Risk"), which monitors violence against journalists in Mexico. He is now working for the World Association of Newspapers to develop a program on media development and press freedom in Latin America, according to the CIMA study.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.