Digital security, a pre-requisite for investigative journalists

By Tendai Gukutikwa

Fact-Finding, while undercover or in the open in a world where online censorship and surveillance has become the order of the day is quite challenging for investigative journalists all over the world. At most, journalists have been harassed online, had their data stolen or their anonymous sources revealed and, in worst-case scenarios tracked using digital tools and murdered.

The case however, is even worse for journalists in developing nations, particularly African investigative journalists as they try and investigate on corrupt governments. This is a world where governments spy on their citizens willy-nilly and because they cannot take the heat against their corrupt governments, they will try and silence the journalists’ voices. This evidently shows how digital security is now a pre-requisite within investigative journalists’ everyday lives.

While there are many tools that can help investigative journalists evade surveillance and other digital threats, whereas ensuring their safety online, firstly they have to create their threat models, advised media trainer and chief operations officer at Frayintermedia, Des Latham. He was speaking at the virtual African Investigative Journalism Conference 2020 (AIJC2020) training session for investigative journalists on online safety.

Threat modeling is a process by which potential threats, can be identified, enumerated, and prioritized – all from a hypothetical attacker’s point of view, explained Latham.

By identifying objectives and vulnerabilities, and then defining countermeasures to prevent, or mitigate the effects of, threats to the person, it improves security and in our case, digital security, he said.

Attendees were told that every journalist has different threats, meaning there’s a different threat model for each journalist. For example, in the case of a journalist working for a state owned media, the Government is definitely not a threat to him/her as it might be to a private media journalist. Private media journalists are more at risk of being under surveillance or have their data spied on by the State than the former, warned Latham.

“Every journalist should have a threat model which will help you in monitoring high risk individuals,” he said.

He further urged news organisations to order all their staff to activate two-factor authentication on all accounts, be they the company’s or personal. Freelance and correspondents are not an exception, they were also encouraged to double-factor authenticate their accounts. One key two factor authentication tool is the Google Authenticator where one has to download the app on a mobile device – the app charges authentication codes for instilled apps every few seconds and without those particular codes, an intruder cannot get into your accounts.

What most investigative journalists reporting in Africa want is safe access to the internet while anonymously circumventing our threats’ surveillance.

Investigative journalists need secure communication applications and email accounts where they can communicate securely with their sources and that’s one of the reasons Latham also delved into secure mobile messaging.

“Mobile messaging is quicker and cheaper and everyone uses the applications, it is just a matter of whether one’s data is protected or not. For one’s data to be safe online, one needs to choose wisely when it comes to mobile messaging because as journalists we usually chat with our sources and whistle-blowers on these applications while also receiving important data via them,” explained Latham.

The best way to choose a mobile messaging application is to ask oneself if the application has an open source, if it stores metadata, if it has a higher user base, if messages can be automatically deleted and if it is end to end encrypted, he advised.

He advised attendees to use Signal, which has a high user base within investigative journalists, explaining that it has an open source and is very secure because it has end-to-end encryption and it does not store metadata and it also has a desktop version. The best thing about the app is that journalists can set expiration dates on their messages so that they disappear within the stipulated time.

It’s the everyday digital threats to one’s privacy that make online safety even more important for investigative journalists, warned Latham.

While investigative journalists are still in the journey of demanding for their digital rights and freedom all over Africa, they have to protect themselves online as much as they can by circumventing the Internet Service Providers’ blacklisting of the certain websites and staying anonymous online for our safety by actively using secure VPNs and the TOR browser. With these tools, journalists can communicate with sources securely.

After all is said and done, the fact remains the same digital security is a pre-requisite for every journalist, be they investigative or undercover as they need to avoid endangering their freedom online, added Latham.

About the author:

Tendai Gukutikwa is a digital, broadcast and print investigative journalist and a photographer for the Manica Post and The Herald in Zimbabwe. She is an AIJC2020 Fellow.