Secure Journalism at Protests

Martin Shelton (@mshelton) & Geoffrey King (@geoffwking)

Antiwar demonstrators attempt to enter the Phillip Burton Federal Building in San Francisco on January 5, 2009. Photo: Geoffrey King

Protesters call attention to economic, environmental, racial, gender-based and other forms of injustice. For journalists covering political movements, reporting on protests is crucial, but these events come with unique security challenges. This quick guide will focus on how U.S. journalists can manage the security of their devices and reporting materials when covering protests. Digital security is only one consideration, alongside both physical threats and your rights as a citizen and journalist.

Protecting your information

  1. Do you have any sensitive data on your devices?
  2. How likely do you think it is that a third party could get access to your devices?
  3. Who could get access to your devices, and what might they be able to do?
  4. Do your web-connected devices have access to remote services, such as your email?
  5. Are there sensitive details that you need to obscure before publication, such as the identities of those involved? Would it be acceptable for them to be seen by someone before publication?

Sometimes protests can be relatively calm events. But sometimes protests can be chaotic. Press observers aren’t always distinguishable from the crowd; sometimes reporters even find themselves deliberately targeted by police, protesters or both. When protests become dynamic, equipment is generally more likely to be damaged, lost, stolen, or confiscated. Know the environment and the likely risks.

Need to protect your communications?

Before going anywhere, make sure your colleagues know where you are, and have your contact information.

Phone calls and SMS text messages can be easily intercepted. One common way SMS messages and phone calls are intercepted is using a fake cellphone tower, sometimes called an IMSI catcher or “Stingray.” Evidence compiled by Lucy Parsons Labs suggests IMSI catchers are being used by law enforcement officials around the globe. The good news is that it’s pretty easy to encrypt your mobile communications. Use Signal for iOS or Android to make secure phone calls and send secure text messages. If you want help getting started, read Signal for Beginners.

Keep in mind that your messages are only as secure as your phone. So if there’s no passcode, your phone can be opened with a simple swipe.

Keeping your data safe

Consider bringing a secondary mobile device

Contract-free phones are fairly easy to find at corner stores and electronics shops (e.g., Best Buy) and can typically be activated immediately after purchase. These devices are often less secure than an up-to-date iPhone. For example, encryption may not be on by default. On this secondary device, avoid logging into accounts with access to your personal data. If you plan on uploading video recordings on your mobile device, make sure to purchase a large data plan. Remember that your colleagues may not know about your secondary phone; make sure you’ve exchanged numbers. You can put their numbers in your phone, but in case you lose access, write it down somewhere else as well.

If you need to bring your personal device, there are smart ways to do that.

Before covering an event, back up your mobile devices locally

Encrypt your devices

(While you may not bring your laptop to an event, it’s still generally a good idea to encrypt your disk using your operating system’s native software, FileVault for Mac, or BitLocker on Windows. This is strongly advised for protecting your backups as well.)

Turn off mobile fingerprint and face unlock

iPhone users: Settings > Face / Touch ID & Passcode
Android users: Settings > Security and location (may also be “Security” or “Biometrics and security”)

Live streaming comes with tradeoffs

Need to protect the people in your photos or videos?

Bonus: Use sensor data for verification

Make sure you have enough power

Physical concerns

In general, there isn’t a reliable way to encrypt photos and videos on a traditional camera, and this is a problem well recognized by photojournalists and filmmakers reporting from dangerous environments. Your primary defense for protecting physical films and storage devices is to keep them in your possession, and to make backups as soon as you can.

Know when to talk to a lawyer

In addition to the constitutional protections, there are state and federal statutes designed to safeguard the free flow of news. For example, with few exceptions, the federal Privacy Protection Act forbids law enforcement from searching and seizing journalists’ work product and documentary materials. This law applies to journalistic activity (e.g., freelancers and citizen journalists), not just journalists at traditional news organizations. With the exception of Wyoming, each state and the District of Columbia provide some protections that limit journalists’ obligation to testify about their stories or turn over unpublished materials in response to a subpoena. (The strength of these protections vary by state.)

You can still get in trouble for breaking laws that apply to everybody. For example, journalists cannot trespass on private property, obstruct officers, or resist arrest, and law enforcement may use these and similarly neutral laws as a pretext to arrest you. Unfortunately, the threat of arrest is more than hypothetical — there are many examples of journalists being detained while covering events.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s advice here is sound:

If questioned by police, you can politely but firmly ask to speak to your attorney and politely but firmly request that all further questioning stop until your attorney is present. It is best to say nothing at all until you have a chance to talk to a lawyer. However, if you do decide to answer questions, be sure to tell the truth. It is likely a crime to lie to a police officer and you may find yourself in more trouble for lying to law enforcement than for whatever it was they wanted on your [device].

Of course, none of this general information about the law takes the place of actual legal advice from an attorney who knows the facts of your situation. If you are arrested or your devices are seized, heed the EFF’s advice and talk to a lawyer immediately. There are a number of terrific organizations that offer pro bono legal assistance:

  1. Your local affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union.
  2. The Electronic Frontier Foundation.
  3. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press legal defense hotline.
  4. The Student Press Law Center.
  5. The National Press Photographers Association.

If you believe you are likely to run into trouble, consider writing your lawyer’s phone number on your arm before the event.

Go get the story

The authors would like to thank Victoria Baranetsky of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and Riana Pfefferkorn of the Stanford Center for Internet and Society for their invaluable feedback on this post.

This article has been cross-posted with the Freedom of the Press Foundation.

A few updates

The article was updated on January 22, 2017 to remove language suggesting the confirmed use of an IMSI catcher at a specific location; on June 7, 2019, to remove references to specific Android devices supporting disk encryption, as these devices have become more common since initial publication; on September 16, 2019 to account for newer unlock methods, such as Face ID; on April 15, 2020 to remove references to outdated apps, and update graphics, such as Signal’s new logo.

Writing about security for journalists, as well as beginners. Principal researcher at @freedomofpress.

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