While not every journalist is an international war correspondent, every journalist’s cellphone is untrustworthy. Mobile phones, and in particular Internet-enabled smartphones, are used by reporters around the world to gather and transmit news. But mobile phones also make journalists easier to locate and intimidate, and confidential sources easier to uncover. Cellular systems can pinpoint individual users within a few meters, and cellphone providers record months, even years, of individual movements and calls. Western cellphone companies like TeliaSonera and France Telecom have been accused by investigative journalists in their home countries of complicity in tracking reporters, while mobile spying tools built for law enforcement in Western countries have, according to computer security researchers working with human rights activists, been exported for use against journalists working under repressive regimes in Ethiopia, Bahrain, and elsewhere.
“Reporters need to understand that mobile communications are inherently insecure and expose you to risks that are not easy to detect or overcome,” says Katrin Verclas of the National Democratic Institute. Activists such as Verclas have been working on sites like SaferMobile, which give basic advice for journalists to protect themselves. CPJ recently published a security guide that addresses the use of satellite phones and digital mobile technologies. But repressive governments don’t need to keep up with all the tricks of mobile computing; they can merely set aside budget and strip away privacy laws to get all the power they need. Unless regulators, technology companies, and media personnel step up their own defenses of press freedom, the cellphone will become journalists’ most treacherous tool.
Network surveillance is a very real problem that journalists and, by extension, their sources have to account for. The problem is that many of the security tools that are used to protect confidential communications are awkward to use, provide to sources, and use correctly without network censors detecting the communication. Worst is when journalists simply externalize risk, putting sources at risk in the service of ‘getting the story’ in order to ‘spread the word.’ Such externalization is unfortunately common and generates fear and distrust in journalists.