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Media Development

Special: Digital safety for journalists

Surveillance, espionage, data theft: how can journalists safely research online while also protecting their sources? DW Akademie and ARD invited media experts and politicians to take part in a discussion round in Berlin.

Anne Roth (right), NGO Tactical Technology Collective and Malte Spitz, member of parliament for Germany's Green party (photo: Tanja Schnitzler).

Anne Roth (right), NGO "Tactical Technology Collective" and Malte Spitz, member of parliament for Germany's Green party

"There's no such thing as foolproof digital security. If you're researching a sensitive topic you need to meet your sources and just have a pen and paper at hand. Make sure you don't take your mobile phone with you", cautioned Anne Roth of the NGO "Tactical Technology Collective". She was part of a special International Media discussion round held January 23. It took place at the Berlin studio of Germany's public broadcaster, ARD. More than 100 guests attended.

Nevertheless, said Roth, there are a number of tools that journalists can use to increase safety precautions, such as encrypting emails, hard drives and chat conversations.

Host Holger Hank, DW Akademie Digital (photo: Tanja Schnitzler).

Host Holger Hank, DW Akademie Digital

That's not always easy for journalists to do, though: newsroom computers are connected to their own IT systems, which often prevent the downloading of additional programs. "I do a lot of research from home and have all the encryption programs I need on my private computer," said John Goetz, an editor for investigative research at the public broadcaster, NDR. When he accompanied German parliamentarian Christian Ströbele to Moscow last October to meet U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden, it was clear to Goetz that he would not have his mobile with him. These phones can be easily tracked. "Intelligence services can easily locate journalists this way," said Anne Roth. "Even without following the conversations they can learn a lot about journalists and their research projects: locations for meetings, for example, who they call, and how long and how often these conversations take place."

Anne Roth is always surprised by how little journalists know about digital safety and protecting their sources. That's why she is calling for digital safety to be included in journalism training programs.

Source protection and encryption programs

William Echikson (left), Google, and John Goetz, NDR journalist (photo: Tanja Schnitzler).

William Echikson (left), Google, and John Goetz, NDR journalist

Malte Spitz, a member of parliament for Germany's Green party and specialist in civil rights, media and Internet policy, supports the idea. He has been in contact with numerous Berlin political correspondents who are technically unable to receive confidential information. "If I want to send these journalists confidential files via email, many still don't know what encryption is."

Asked about current safety loopholes Google lobbyist William Echikson believes these problems are not new. "Journalists have always had to worry about protecting their sources. The Internet hasn't caused these problems but has given them another technical dimension," he said. His company, he pointed out, does not use additional encryption programs. What really worries him, said the lobbyist, is the tendency for more and more governments to censor the Internet in their own countries.

NDR journalist John Goetz countered Echikson, saying Google is basically a tool of the U.S. secret service. Because its headquarters are based in the U.S., said Goetz, Google has to abide by U.S. law and thus provide data to the National Security Agency (NSA). William Echikson responded that his company is suing the U.S. government in the wake of the NSA scandal. "We've published a transparency report that details as much as we can legally as to how many times we hand out information on users, and under which conditions and what type of content we provide," he said.

Who guarantees freedom on the Internet?

Zahi Alawi, journalist with DW's Arabic program (photo: Tanja Schnitzler).

Zahi Alawi, journalist at DW's Arabic program

U.S. Internet companies have a monopoly on regulating the Internet, said Anne Roth, adding it was crucial to have an alternative. "The Internet stands for freedom, but since the NSA scandal one no longer associates 'freedom' with the U.S.," she said. So who could now guarantee the freedom of the Internet? Companies like Google, she believed, take advantage of user data for their business models, and states could not be trusted, either. "We have to find a structure that goes beyond businesses and states," Roth said, admitting that she didn't know what this structure might look like.

The power of the state and targeted surveillance is something that many journalists and activists in the Arab states have been experiencing. "This often leads to self-censorship," said journalist Zahi Alawi from DW's Arabic program. He criticized German software companies that develop spyware and malicious programs and then export them to repressive states. "These companies are basically exporting arms," he stated. "Their software programs lead to people being arrested and tortured."

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