MEDIA
10/07/2015 11:18 am ET Updated Oct 07, 2015

Journalism Safety App Raises Security Concerns

Reporta reminds users to check in with security contacts and calls for help when they're in trouble.
Courtesy of International Women's Media Foundation

Journalism isn’t always a hazardous profession, especially in countries like the United States where freedom of the press is guaranteed by law. But when disaster strikes or conflict erupts abroad, reporters are often among the foolhardy who wade into danger while others flee. 

A new app from the International Women’s Media Foundation hopes to make it safer for journalists reporting from dangerous locations. Billed as “the only comprehensive security app available worldwide created specifically for journalists,” Reporta reminds users to check in with a list of contacts at regular intervals and allows them to send alerts if they or a colleague encounter dangerous conditions. It also offers an “SOS” feature that locks down the app and reaches out to an emergency contact.

“Reporta was developed with the goal to harness the power of the one piece of technology that most journalists use every day -- a mobile phone,” said Elisa Lees Muñoz, executive director of IWMF, in a statement announcing the app’s Sept. 29 release. “Now more than ever, it is critical to equip journalists with a free tool to help them stay safe and best positioned to continue to tell the significant stories of our time.”

Designed in collaboration with security experts and 300 journalists who tested the beta version over the summer, the app is available for Android and iPhone devices in six languages: Arabic, English, French, Hebrew, Spanish and Turkish.

According to developers, the goal is both to help journalists implement security protocols and remind them to have protocols established in the first place. The project was funded by a grant from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and built by tech firm RevSquare.

“The idea is that you can use it whenever and wherever you think it’s useful for you,” Allison Price, IWMF’s communications director, told The Huffington Post. “There needn’t be a Baltimore riot for a journalist to feel this is a useful app to let people know they’re OK.”

But over the past week, some of the app’s reviewers have expressed concern about Reporta’s vulnerability to sophisticated hackers and pointed out that the software is closed source, which is considered less secure.

“The Reporta FAQ promises data encryption and server security, but the IWMF is a non-technical NGO -- is it capable of defending its servers against very savvy attackers?” asked J.M. Porup at Motherboard. Porup also pointed out that neither the organization's website nor the Reporta homepage use an HTTPS protocol, which ensures secure communication over a network, and that emails sent to info@reporta.org and support@reporta.org responded with an error message.

Security experts have also expressed concern with Reporta’s data retention policy, which allows IWMF to collect and share user information with third parties. And while the organization has conducted audits of the app, the audit reports have not been made available to independent security experts.

Frederick Jacobs, a developer at Open Whisper Systems who worked on the organization’s secure messaging app, Signal, conducted a review of Reporta’s security protocols. “Every action is logged,” he wrote in a report published on GitHub.

Price said she welcomes feedback from critics. “Obviously we’re very interested in improving it,” she said. “People who are using the app out in the field on highly charged issues know best what they need.”

In response to some of the criticisms from the security community, IWMF has announced that it is making the software behind Reporta open source.

“Since its launch, we have received a lot of constructive feedback on Reporta,” the organization said in a statement Friday. “Some IT security experts have recommended that we make the app’s code open-source to increase transparency. We agree. We plan to place the code in a public repository. Our developers estimate this process will take a few weeks.”

But the IWMF has also stressed in publicity materials that Reporta is no replacement for security training. 

The release of Reporta also calls to mind the plight of freelancers, whom many news organizations rely on to cover foreign conflicts. A group of news outlets -- including Reuters, The Associated Press, Bloomberg and the BBC -- recently signed on to international safety standards for freelancers, who must navigate dangerous situations without the traditional supports of journalists on staff.

This post has been modified to clarify how the Reporta app works.

Digital Dive is a running series looking at the future of the media industry.

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