Digital tools have transformed how journalists do their work, but they can also pose a real security threat. The UNESCO Building Digital Safety report is a good starting point for understanding the issue.
These days, digital surveillance carried out by governments and corporations is widespread. Some snooping is done for commercial marketing purposes, but the objectives are often even darker, like cracking down on critical journalism. Personal data can be hacked to get a home address, mobile phones users’ movements can be tracked, and cyber attackers can shut down controversial websites.
Many journalists don’t know enough about the digital threats they face. Or they may be overwhelmed by the rapid pace of technological change and the need to keep adapting to new threats.
The UNESCO report, Building Digital Safety for Journalism, is a valuable resource for those who are struggling to keep up with these challenges. It calls on journalists and editors to develop a security plan that makes "digital hygiene" as common as brushing their teeth.
The report takes a look at 12 specific security threats linked to ongoing digital developments. They’re briefly outlined here:
The UNESCO report provides tips on how to keep yourself, and your data, safe. These include using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), making sure your phone’s location data setting is off and privacy settings are on, and encrypting as much information as one can.
Another piece of advice is to only open attachments only in the cloud (several webmail providers have this service), to reduce the risk of malware making it onto your computer.
There's also a valuable collection of organizations around the globe working in the field of digital security. These groups try to raise awareness of the problems of security online and offer specific training courses or guides to teach journalists how to stay safe. Groups like the Tactical Technology Collective and Front Line Defenders are on the list, two groups that do excellent work.
Focus on women
Female journalists, according to the report, may be victims of a "double attack" – they’re targets both for being journalists and being women.
Online abuse against women, including journalists, is a growing international phenomenon (here's a recent study on the topic). The UNESCO report examines the digital online threats and abuse suffered specifically by women, including online sexual harassment, sexist comments, and cyberstalking. Female journalists also receive online comments focusing on their physical appearance, rather than their reporting.
These kinds of online threats and abuse make journalists increasingly worried about personal security. They might start using pseudonyms when they publish, or stop writing about a story or topic all together.
Challenges and recommendations
The report offers a number of recommendations to ensure that digital security is taken more seriously. These range from calling on news organizations and journalism institutions to provide regular digital security training for journalists. For example, reporters should know how to secure data on a laptop if it’s stolen or confiscated, and news outlets need to adopt secure technologies for all information and file-sharing.
It also calls on governments and policy-makers to recognize UN resolutions on the Right to Privacy in the Digital Age and corporations and governments to pledge not to sell surveillance technologies to clients or countries, which might abuse them.
"Building Digital Safety for Journalism" is a valuable addition to the growing body of research on digital security and worth a careful read. It provides practical tips on how to keep yourself and your sources safe online.
The Report is one of four in the UNESCO Internet Freedom series. You can download all of them here.