How Journalists Are Arming Themselves to Safely Report Post-Snowden

As government pushes and prosecutes America’s top reporters, journalists shift to protect Americans’ right to information.

Journalists James Risen and Dana Priest (Photos: Chip Somodevilla; Fredrick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Nov 7, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Eliza Krigman is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post. She writes about politics, business, and lifestyle issues.

Most reporters will never get a story as earth-shaking as the one leaked by Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who provided a massive cache of proof that the American government had built a secret, globally pervasive electronic surveillance program. But more reporters are getting ready for exactly that.

“It made me realize I needed to learn encryption,” said Rachel Oswald, a national security reporter at CQ Roll Call, referring to Snowden’s use of encryption to communicate with the journalists he leaked the story to. “I’m convinced it’s important, and I feel a professional obligation that I learn this.”

With the help of the National Press Club, Oswald recently organized a tutorial for journalists on ways to keep communication private, and she was one of the many professional journalists who gathered Friday at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., to learn more about safe computing from some of the legends of national security reporting.

We may live in a digital world, but some of the top reporters who spoke at the event agreed: The gold standard for doing effective frontline reporting hasn’t changed much since the dawn of journalism.

“The best thing to do is to meet people in person,” said James Risen, a distinguished New York Times reporter who may face jail time for refusing to reveal the sources who tipped him off to a botched CIA operation involving Iran’s nuclear program. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for revealing secret domestic eavesdropping, a precursor to the sort of civil liberty dilemmas Snowden’s case has stirred.

With a focus on how Snowden changed the journalism landscape, the panel Risen and other award-winning journalists spoke on was meant to address real-world encryption problems. Instead of getting into the nuts and bolts of encryption, though, these veteran journalists encouraged attendees to conduct tried-and-true shoe-leather reporting.

“I’m a human source kind of person. I believe that’s where most of good journalism gets done,” said Dana Priest, an investigative reporter at The Washington Post who won a Pulitzer in 2008 for exposing veteran mistreatment at Walter Reed Hospital. “I want to make sure that nobody thinks electronic communication and encrypting should replace face-to-face meetings with people.”

Even Snowden eventually met with journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras to go over the fine details. [Those events were captured by the documentary CITIZENFOUR, which is being distributed theatrically by Radius in association with Participant Media—TakePart’s parent company—and HBO Documentary Films.—Ed.] The reality is that the sort of broad, cohesive data-dump-based reporting that made Snowden famous is rare, Priest said. Even if reporters want to use encryption with their sources, it’s not a one-way street.

“Most of the people in the intelligence community don’t even want to install an encryption program because it makes them look suspicious,” said Julia Angwin, a senior reporter at ProPublica who writes about national security.

Despite emphasizing the importance of reporting in person, all of the journalists acknowledged that encryption plays an important role in facilitating initial communication with sources. Reporters also need more user-friendly tools to aid with clandestine communication, they said.

Angwin recommended that all attendees download the Tor browser, which lets users search the Internet anonymously. For off-the-record instant messaging, journalists can use Adium on a Mac and Pidgin on a PC to encrypt those real-time missives. Reporters are also turning to Pretty Good Privacy, a data encryption program, and Tails, an operating system that aims to preserve anonymity. Tails works through an external device, such as a USB stick or a DVD.

The challenge, many of the journalists said, is figuring out these programs and becoming comfortable with them. Regardless of the time it may take to learn new tricks, some see it as imperative.

In the post-Snowden world, “I’m here because I do see the need to change my communication practices,” said Aliya Sternstein, a cybersecurity reporter at Nextgov.