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Whistleblowers to journalists: protect your data

In the modern age of electronic media, secret government surveillance and surreptitious data gathering by federal and state agencies means…

At a National Press Club event on national security and leaks, known whistleblowers offered tips to reporters covering sensitive information.

Thomas Drake, a former senior executive at the National Security Agency who leaked information about the misuse of taxpayer dollars for a warrantless surveillance program, said invisibility from the government means journalists must understand contemporary encryption techniques.

“Encrypt the crap out of your life,” said Drake. “Even to this day I will not communicate with people unless they install encryption programs on their computers and on their phones. If you see my computer and how I access the Internet, it’s pretty locked-down. My entire computer is encrypted. None of the keys are available. It’s just prudent.”

After securing their data, Drake said reporters must also safeguard any information about their security systems.

“Many of the encryption systems are totally compromised. And I’ve had people ask me, ‘which system do you use?’ I don’t say what I use publicly for all the obvious reasons.” Drake said.

Cato Institute Research Fellow Julian Sanchez, an expert on civil liberties and the media, suggested whistleblowers looking for a journalist to confide in should look for a reporter who has a background in technology or security. Whistleblowers, he said, worry less about finding reporters who can keep a secret and more about finding reporters with the means to keep that secret.

“If you’re a whistleblower, you may have a sense of who has the integrity to protect their sources, but you have no way of knowing who has the technical savvy to effectively use the tools necessary to engage in secure communication,” said Sanchez.

Telecom whistleblower and computer expert Babak Pasdar said reporters must also take time to learn about the electric communication system. In 2008, Pasdar discovered a mysterious circuit that channeled Verizon customer communications information to the federal government. He said his interviews with reporters would have been smoother if they possessed prior knowledge of the mechanics.

“My disclosure was a very technical disclosure. Understanding what this stuff means from a technology perspective, or at least having the resources to do that, is important,” Pasdar said.

While encrypting each exchange and all information can seem difficult and cumbersome, whistleblower and attorney Jesselyn Radack said the process was, in fact, very straightforward. Radack helped disclose ethics violations within the Federal Bureau of Investigation more than a decade ago.

“I think there are a lot of situations when you want confidentiality between a lawyer and a client, or between the journalist and the source. I’m very technologically challenged, and I can attest to the fact that it’s incredibly easy,” said Radack. “I urge other reporters and lawyers to take part.”