A week of live video conferences, blog posts and chats gave experts and journalists a chance to discuss digital risks and threats, and to look at how journalists can protect themselves as well as their sources.
Although online research and mobile applications are standards in a journalist's tool box these days, journalists are often not aware of the dangers these can pose. "That is, until they find out they've been targeted," said Anne Roth from the non-government organization Tactical Tech. "Unfortunately that's when it's usually too late," she warned at the launch of DW Akademie's open online workshop, Digital Safety for Journalists.
Activist and blogger Ala'a Shehabi from Bahrain can speak from experience having once opened an unsuspicious-looking attachment. Unbeknownst to her it activated a spy software, enabling Bahrain's intelligence service to search her entire harddrive.
"That was a shock," she said. "The bigger shock, though, was when I found out that a German-British company had produced the software." The software is not even allowed in Germany.
"Digital surveillance is basically privatized but governments aren't reacting to this," said Hauke Gierow, an internet expert with Reporters Without Borders. "That's surprising given the countries where digital surveillance and physical violence go hand-in-hand - when it comes to accessing passwords, for instance."
Protecting themselves and their sources
"Journalists working under repressive regimes are definitely more at risk than those working in the West," said Christian Stöcker from Spiegel Online. But he warned that all journalists have to be aware of digital security issues. "They need to know how they can protect themselves and, more importantly, how to protect their sources from third parties," he stressed.
The free open online workshop was held early December and discussed resources for reducing risks. More than 400 participants registered. The workshop was organized by DW Akademie in cooperation with Reporters Without Borders, and the hashtag "#digisafe" was used intensively.
"Our goal is for journalists and media professionals - especially those in transition and developing countries - to become aware of the issues and to offer tips on precautionary measures," said Holger Hank, head of DW Akademie Digital. "What's important to know, though, is that there are no technical guarantees," he cautioned. "Even the NSA revelations show that digital communication is never entirely secure." He recommended that individuals decide for themselves on the strategy that suits them best.
Up to 80 participants followed each of the six live sessions with internet experts. The workshop blog offers additional support and tips on resources for minimizing risks and digital vulnerability.
Anne Roth emphasized this was not about becoming paranoid but about being aware of basic safety measures that are easy to apply. They are included in the workshop's website with information on encrypting harddrives and email traffic, using TOR software for anonymous surfing and avoiding apps that store personal data.
DW Akademie's Steffen Leidel was the workshop's project manager. "Journalists use online tools because they're free and practical, but there is a price: you surrender your personal data," he warned. "Journalists have to consider whether they're willing to pay that price."