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Journalists, technologists discuss encryption at conference on digital security after Snowden

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  1. Newsgathering
Update: The complete conference video is now online. “Edward Snowden is not a model for journalism,” James Risen said at…

Update: The complete conference video is now online.


“Edward Snowden is not a model for journalism,” James Risen said at a conference on digital security practices last Friday. “If it is, we’re going to have a lot of lawyers — and a lot of problems.”

From left to right, James Risen of The New York Times, Julia Angwin of ProPublica, Dana Priest of The Washington Post, and Christopher Soghoian of the ACLU discuss the use of encryption by journalists.

Risen’s comments were made on a panel about real-world encryption problems like securing communications between reporters and their sources from monitoring by the government. But, as Risen’s comments suggested, the panelists diverged sharply on the changes that have taken place in the newsgathering community since Snowden’s revelations last year, as well as the appropriate responses to those changes.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press co-hosted the conference on digital security practices for journalists with the Freedom of the Press Foundation and the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation. The conference, “News Organizations and Digital Security: Solutions for Surveillance After Snowden,” took place at the Knight Conference Center at the Newseum in Washington, DC.

A packed house observed three panel discussions featuring award-winning journalists, technologists, and lawyers. Speakers discussed a wide range of problems with insecure reporter-source communications, including the difficulties of using free and open-source encryption software and the perceived lack of institutional resources in newsrooms to implement encryption-based technologies company-wide. Many panelists noted that government sources are reluctant to use encrypted email and other applications because it can be a “red flag” that an employee is engaged in unauthorized communications. Technologists and journalists agreed that encryption will be most effective when it becomes commonplace and routine within society as a whole.

Audience members also participated in numerous breakout sessions, designed to teach participants how to use some of the most common encryption-based tools. The sessions, run by trainers from Access, IREX, Freedom of the Press Foundation, and ProPublica, provided a brief foray into technologies such as the Tor Browser, SecureDrop, and PGP email encryption. At the end of the day, Edward Snowden himself joined the conference via webcast and delivered remarks on a range of government accountability issues. Asked to comment on recent proposals by the FBI to limit default encryption on mobile devices by including a “front door” to break that encryption where necessary, Snowden replied: “The FBI already has a front door. It’s called a warrant.” Snowden also commented on the irony that the United States government rarely, if ever, encrypts internal emails and documents, thereby making it easier for hostile entities to try to gain access to those documents.