The future of the free press is at risk: encryption is part of the solution

As media leaders gather at World Press Freedom Day (WPFD), in Jakarta, Indonesia, they embark on the difficult journey of safeguarding journalists’ mission in an era where their freedom is increasingly at risk.

The surveillance of journalists, in particular, has profound implications for democratic institutions, including freedom of the press; it threatens their ability to confidently and confidentially collect information and opinions about important societal issues such as politics, the environment, governmental decisions, etc. Today, more than ever, journalists need to be able to research and report the news without fear of interference or surveillance.

Encryption offers a vital defense for such intrusions. All journalists, from professionals uncovering the latest national security stories to citizen reporters documenting a protest with their mobile phone, need to be aware of the risk of unencrypted communications.

Based on input by the Internet Society, the WPFD Declaration to be adopted this week should encourage the deployment of encryption to ensure trust online and to support the safety of online journalists and the confidentiality of their sources. This is an important and positive signal to the international community.

The free press is under pressure

According to Reporters Without Boarders, the overall level of media freedom constraints and violations worldwide has risen 14% in the span of five years. Just in the past year, nearly two-thirds (62.2%) of the countries measured have registered a deterioration in their situation (including in democracies), while the number of countries where the media freedom situation was “good” or “fairly good” fell by 2.3%.

This happens in a context where reporters can be victims of government orders to shut down media websites or blogs in the name of national security or public order. But the pressure on journalists can be even higher. In some countries, using encryption is a risk in itself. For example, in 2015, three journalists from Vice Magazine were imprisoned for the reported use of encryption software.

Surveillance and violations of the confidentiality of sources have contributed to the decline of media freedom worldwide. The consequences are profound, including selfcensorship in democratic societies. In the United States, a study by Pen America showed that 16 per cent of writers avoided talking about certain topics as a result of government surveillance.

Encryption is the solution

Reporters often have multiple assignments and little time. When faced with choice, they may choose convenience over investing time in technical skills to secure their communications.

Yet, the consequences for a journalist to be under surveillance or hacked can be disastrous: losing years of research; sources whose online identity got compromised; and reporters who were physically attacked because an adversary intercepted their communications and discovered the subject of their investigations.

Tech-savvy, investigative reporters or those who focus on national security stories routinely use end-to-end encryption to protect the confidentiality of their communications so that not even the company that delivers the messages can read them. Many use tools like Signal on their smart phones and/or encrypt their email. They are careful about restricting app access to geolocation data, ensuring their devices are encrypted, and deploying a whole host of tools and techniques for better security and privacy in both their professional and personal lives.

But the need for better security doesn’t just apply to investigative reporters. All journalists have a responsibility to protect themselves and their sources. Even run-of-the-mill reporting could make journalists a target.

There is support out there

Organisations like the Committee for the Protection of Journalists, Reporters Without Borders and the Electronic Frontier Foundation offer security toolkits and guidance on how to encrypt devices and communications.

Furthermore, following the Snowden revelations, some major Internet companies stepped up and offered encrypted services. As a result today, more than half the web is now encrypted over HTTPS, many suppliers offer device encryption, and some messaging services such as Whatsapp have adopted end-to-end encryption.

The Internet technical community is also playing an essential role in supporting encryption on the Internet for everyone. The World Wide Web Consortium (WC3) and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) are working hard to make encryption the norm for web communications and for the protocols that enable information to flow on the Internet.

Some recent developments include:

  • DNS Privacy: The IETF is developing standards that will encrypt all queries for DNS names so that users' privacy is protected and no one else can see what sites you are planning to visit.
  • Email encryption: Standards from the IETF are also now enabling the easy encryption of email between mail servers. The method based on the DANE protocol is being promoted by government agencies in Germany, the Netherlands and the USA, among others.
  • Let’s Encrypt: The nonprofit initiative has now issued over 35 million active TLS certificates for use by websites and others. That makes sure that any data transferred between users and websites remain impossible to read by unintended parties.

Governments have a role too. We invite them to adopt the SecureTheInternet principles and to support strong encryption, not only to ensure the safety of journalists, but also as a technology that already allows us to do our banking, conduct local and global business, run our power grids, operate communications networks, and do almost everything else.

As we celebrate World Press Freedom Day, we must remember that journalists and their sources are taking enormous risks right now in making sure crucial stories get told.

In today's environment, where trust in online information is at an all-time low, we need free, safe and independent journalists more than ever. We all have a role to play, and encryption is one step to take us there.

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