It’s impossible to think of modern journalism without thinking of smartphones, but, as beneficial as they might be, smartphones carry many cybersecurity risks. Since their jobs often involve accessing sensitive data, journalists are common targets for hackers, large corporations, government agencies, and secret services, who don’t want their practices to be made public. Journalists who travel to authoritarian countries are the first example that comes to mind.
Still, Western journalists have also been targeted when they investigated big corporations or cases of political corruption. For journalists, protecting your phone is just as important as protecting your sources, and, yet, according to the International News Safety Institute, most journalists underestimate the importance of cybersecurity, which, in the worst cases, can lead to physical harm. The truth is that, in this day and age, there is no anonymity on the Internet unless you take extensive measures to prevent third parties from accessing your data.
1. Encrypt Internet traffic on your phone
By default, everything you do online is tracked by your ISP or accessed by malicious third parties. For example, if you’re chatting to one of your sources from a café or looking up a company’s fiscal records from your hotel room, government agencies or hackers can find out what you are doing.
Unfortunately, there are countless examples of journalists who were blackmailed into dropping their stories and even lost their lives because they investigated influential people, so you can never be too careful – especially if you’re reporting from a country where there is no freedom of the press.
The best way to prevent other parties from tracking your online activity is to install a VPN on your phone, which encrypts your network and makes you untraceable. Another benefit of VPNs is that they can bypass censorship and access apps and websites restricted by the Government.
2. Use apps with strong encryption
No matter how careful you are about protecting your sources and connecting only from secure connections, your activity can still be tracked if you use apps with poor encryption. Messaging apps are especially vulnerable, and you should never take your privacy for granted.
For example, many messaging apps popular in the West often leave a back door for governments, allowing them to access user data. Recently, apps like Telegram and Signal have emerged as popular options for journalists and dissidents because all messages are protected by end-to-end encryption.
Users can also start secret chats, which prevents the app from backing up the conversation in the cloud. However, keep in mind that even the most secure and trustworthy apps can change their stance on encryption (WhatsApp being a recent example that started many controversies), so you should constantly check the news for changes.
3. Password-protect your phone and apps
Hackers can access the data on your phone through brute force, but their practices aren’t always subtle and sophisticated. You’d be surprised how many journalists have compromised their sources and careers by leaving their phones unattended in a public place or forgetting to set a secure password. As soon as you get a new phone, take these simple steps to secure it against unauthorized third parties:
- Change your settings so that your screen locks immediately after pressing the power button.
- Set a strong password for unlocking your phone. Touch ID and Face Unlock are technically more secure, but they’re not infallible, and they might not work in high-risk situations, so a hard-to-guess password is your safest bet.
- Hide your notifications or change your notification settings so that the full content of the messages stays hidden.
- Enable remote wipe. In case someone takes your phone, you want to wipe all the data immediately.
- Don’t just protect your phone as a whole; protect each app separately, especially those you use to store your news data and sources. Use hard-to-guess passwords to log in on those apps, always log out after using them, disable the “Remember Me” option, and set up two-factor authentication.
- Regularly delete sensitive app data, cookies, browsing history, etc.
- Use a Word Combiner tool or app to create strong and authentic passwords.
Also, this pretty much goes without saying, but never use your personal phone for work-related reasons, especially if you are investigating high-profile cases of corruption, corporate crime, or you’re traveling to countries known for being dangerous to media workers.
4. Back up your data
If you take extensive precautions, you can reduce the risk of your data being stolen or tampered with. However, you can never truly eliminate that risk, and you should always have a backup in case things go wrong. For example, if you’ve just obtained classified information that could change the course of an investigation, don’t just leave it in your Notes app.
You should create a secure backup so that in case someone deletes it from your phone or forces you to delete it, you can regain access to it. However, that opens up another tricky topic – choosing a cloud storage provider that guarantees 100% protection. Storing sensitive data on physical devices such as flash drives and hard drives can also work, but you need to be very careful where you store them because they can be stolen, damaged, or corrupted.
5. Use a temporary email address
If you’re going to use emails to communicate with a source involved in a sensitive case, your usual email address might not be secure enough because your identity is linked to it. For example, maybe you’re careful enough and delete your traces, but the source can be compromised.
To prevent that from happening, use a temporary email address, preferably from an email service with strong encryption, and make sure malicious actors can’t figure out who you are by looking at your email address or photo.
Smartphones can make journalists’ jobs easier, but they also expose them to severe risks, which is why every media agent should take a cybersecurity course to protect their phones from hackers. You can also seek help from specialized NGOs such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders when something goes wrong.