Protecting Sources in the 21st Century

Trust is key in many situations. This can be especially true for journalists interested in reporting on sensitive matters. If journalists couldn’t be trusted to protect the identity of their confidential sources, many news items we take for granted would never have been written, or perhaps they wouldn’t have included some of the crucial information they revealed. For instance, much of the critical information about the Watergate scandal was given to reporters by a confidential source who went by the name of Deep Throat.

Until recently, reporters made contact with their sources via anonymous phone calls, often from pay phones, secret meetings, and dead drops. The identify of sources could be kept secret fairly easily, especially if the meetings were carefully conducted in such a manner as to leave little or no trail for anyone to follow. This meant avoiding the use of phones as they were traceable. Additionally, many journalists were willing to risk jail time instead of revealing their sources.

With the advent of the Internet, it became possible to contact sources, both local and distant, quickly and conveniently via email or some form of instant messaging. The ability to reach out to a source and get an almost immediate answer means journalists can quickly deal with rapidly evolving stories. The anonymity of the Internet means that sources stay anonymous. It’s a win-win situation.

Or is it…

I was listening to an On The Media podcast recently and they featured a story about how reporters using the Internet are, in some cases, exposing their contacts without meaning to, often without even knowing it. You can listen to the story below or read the transcript.

Before the Internet, phone conversations were sometimes considered an acceptable risk for contacting sources. After all, tracing a phone call was something it generally took a court order to accomplish. The Internet, however, is a completely different beast. Depending on the communications software used, tracing the owner of an account can be accomplished very easily by just about anyone. Software such as Netglub or Maltego can be used to quickly gather Intel on someone, starting with something as small and simple as a single email address.

Email accounts are generally accessible from anywhere in the world, protected by only a username and password. Brute forcing software can be used to crack a password in a relatively short time allowing someone direct access to the mail stored in the account. And if the mail is sent in clear text, someone trying to identify the source can easily read email sent between the reporter and their source without anyone being the wiser.

Other accounts can be similarly attacked. The end result of identifying the source can be mere embarrassment, or perhaps the source losing their job. Or, as is often the case when foreign news sources are involved, the source can be hunted down and killed.

For a reporter, protecting a source has always been important, but in some cases, it’s a matter of life and death. In the past few years, unrest overseas in places such as Iran, Egypt, Syria, and others has shown that secure communication methods are necessary to help save the lives of those fighting for change. Governments have been ruthless in hunting down and eliminating those who would oppose them. Using secure methods for communication have become lifelines for opposition forces. Likewise, reporters and anyone else who interacts with these sorts of contacts should also be using whatever methods of security they can to ensure that their sources are protected.

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