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The Role of Corporate and Government Surveillance in Shifting Journalistic Information Security Practices

Creative Commons 'BY-SA' version 4.0 license

Digital technologies have fundamentally altered how journalists communicate with their sources, enabling them to exchange information through social media as well as video, audio, and text chat. Simultaneously, journalists are increasingly concerned with corporate and government surveillance as a threat to their ability to speak with sources in confidence and to conduct basic reporting. In response, some U.S. journalists are learning information security techniques as well as nontechnical approaches to source protection and slowing surveillance. I conducted thirty interviews with journalists and press advocates to learn about their information security practices and their perceptions of the impediments that government and corporate surveillance impose on their ability to complete their work. I found that most of the time, journalists had routine sources who did not require strict confidentiality. However, journalists expressed deep concerns regarding the confidentiality of their sources when working on sensitive stories and when their sources place themselves at risk. While I found the journalists shared widespread concerns about surveillance, they also had diverse and inconsistent approaches to their digital security. When conducting sensitive work, some journalists shared experiences about speaking with their sources over encrypted channels, avoiding cell phones, or avoiding commercial phone and Web services that could be subpoenaed for their user data. To minimize their electronic records and for the sake of convenience, many of the journalists have been meeting sensitive sources in person whenever possible. However, unless absolutely necessary, many journalists preferred to speak with sources through the most convenient communication channels—for example, text messages and phone calls—even when they were concerned about issues of confidentiality. Even in stereotypically sensitive reporting (e.g., national security), the journalists would often forgo comprehensive security measures to speak with their sources. I argue that the security approaches often compete with journalists’ other interests, such as communicating with sources and working with colleagues to publish within strict timelines.

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