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The encryption decision

With all the relevations in the last few years about the government's snooping on communications data, what should the responsible…

With all the relevations in the last few years about the government's snooping on communications data, what should the responsible journalist do to protect their confidential sources?

That question was the central focus of a conference organized by The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Freedom of the Press Foundation, and New America’s Open Technology Institute, held at The Newseum in Washington, D.C., on November 7.

The discussions, described more fully in the following articles, made a few things clear. To summarize: encryption is too difficult to use, scares sources when mentioned, and raises red flags for those snooping around to find the sources. But security in electronic communications is incredibly important, not just to protect sources and whistleblowers against retaliation but to protect journalistic work product from all prying eyes — governmental and private, domestic and foreign.

Some reporters believe that electronic communications are so completely compromised that they simply cannot be used in discussions with sources. Discussions about sensitive information — especially concerning leaks of sensitive or classified government information — must be done in person, in parking garages and public parks and other places where meet-ups won't seem suspicious.

But the other view is that encryption works, and once it becomes pervasive enough that it doesn't raise flags and intimidate journalists and sources with its complexity, we'll have a workable solution for engaging with sensitive sources by electronic communications.

So how do we get to that stage? As some panelists pointed out, big media companies need to dedicate resources to digital security, so that the odd collection of open source solutions can grow into a body of professional yet easy-to-understand programs. But journalists can start using those digital solutions now (described in a sidebar to our main story), to get more comfortable with the technology. And these things have a way of snowballing; if more journalists see other journalists using encryption, they will be encouraged to adapt as well.

Of course, journalists should keep up the important tradition of meeting with sensitive sources in person. But electronic communication will continue to become more important, and journalists can start adapting to technological methods of ensuring secrecy. Hopefully, this issue of The News Media & The Law will help many more journalists start down that road.