This tool (which the rest of the world is already using) can help you protect your sources

April 13, 2017
Category: Tech & Tools

There’s also a well-known (but not widely adopted in the U.S.) tool that can help journalists talk to their sources discreetly. Poynter’s Ren LaForme spoke with me about what it is and how to use it.

We started last week talking about how journalists can protect themselves on the internet. We’re going to continue that conversation this week. What’s our latest tool?

Last week I brought up the fact that journalists have the responsibility to protect not only ourselves but our sources. That idea really seemed to resonate with people. So I thought we’d focus a little bit more on that idea. The poster child for internet security apps right now is called Signal. Have you heard of Signal?

Yes, I have.

It’s not the same Signal that Facebook makes.

OK, I’ve not heard about Signal, then. Tell me about Signal.

This concept’s gonna sound familiar to you. It’s a private messaging and calling app. It’s for iOS and Android, it’s completely free, and this organization called Open Whisper Systems makes it. They’re a private company, but they’re completely grant-funded. So they’re not looking to make money, they’re not looking to advertise with your accounts or anything like that. They’re just trying to make a really great secure messaging app for people who need it.

But we’re not just talking about Signal today, we’re also talking about WhatsApp. Open Whisper Systems partnered with WhatsApp last year to bring all of Signal’s encryption technology to all of WhatsApp’s billions of users. There are literally 1.2 billion people across the planet who have used WhatsApp. And this works on that, too.

So people using WhatsApp are getting the Signal encryption already?

Exactly. My good news to you today is that all the great features of Signal, all of the world-class encryption brought to you by an organization that cares about this, it’s already on your phone.

If someone wants to sign up for this, what do they need to know and what do they need to do?

It’s an iOS and Android app, I believe there’s also a Google Chrome plug in. You just go and download it. If you use it on your phone, it uses your phone number as your identifier. That’s about the only criticism that it’s gotten from people who really care about these things. It is looking at your phone number, but it’s not sending it, it’s just noting it to show you’re a unique user of this app.

Once you have it, you can do private messaging with end-to-end encryption. So your message is never uncoded. You can do text, photo, video, everything like that, and it also has private calling. You can call anyone, anywhere in the world.

I know a lot of journalists are using messaging systems to talk with sources. Do you know, either with Signal or WhatsApp, any journalists or newsrooms that are using this?

Someone from the BBC was using WhatsApp recently to talk to Syrian refugees who were trying to escape. I remember one particularly harrowing story from BuzzFeed News in which a reporter was talking to someone trying to come across the Mediterranean in one of those makeshift boats. It got really scary when she was talking to him, he said, “I’m leaving today, if you don’t hear from me in a couple days, you’ll know something bad happened to me.” And she didn’t hear from him for a long time. And finally he messaged and said, “Hey, we capsized and I’m back where I started.”

People are using this all over the place. It’s especially useful because so many people already have it, which is the big limitation Signal had and why they teamed up with WhatsApp.

I have seen a lot of newsrooms making it easy to find ways to send them tips. If you’re someone who wants people to be able to reach out to you with no trail, can your WhatsApp or Signal account be known and can they find you?

Once you have one of these set up, you can make your number widely known, then other people can message that number with that information. This is something that’s also useful beyond messaging. The BBC, a few years ago, set up a tip line for Ebola, so people would message them when there was an outbreak in their town. They kind of created this makeshift alert system using WhatsApp.

Are you on WhatsApp?

I’ve used it a few times, I don’t use it very regularly.

I signed up for it recently for the first time before going out of the country for work. I know lots of people internationally use it. A lot of Americans don’t. It seems like a tool we need to be playing with more. It’s a really cool tool for reporting and just communicating with people.

Right, with 1.2 billion users, it’s kind of hard to ignore. And I think a lot of newsrooms and journalists do. That might be limiting our reach for international audiences and sources.

Any cautions here? I know WhatsApp got some negative press after it was bought by Facebook. Rumors of a WhatsApp bug recently made news, too.

If WhatsApp starts funneling information to Facebook, it’s definitely worth reconsidering using it for (presumably) private, encrypted chats. At that point, I’d switch to Signal and be glad it’s still an independent organization committed to private messaging. As for WhatsApp bugs, my understanding is that they’ve been greatly exaggerated. Which makes sense, honestly. If something is supposed to be secure, and there are questions about whether it actually is or not, I hope that info would be shouted from the rooftops.

Sounds like there are two good options here, but people need to keep paying attention to the tools they choose to use.

Right. If at any point you feel completely comfortable, take that as a sign that you’re probably not safe. Always ask questions, always poke and prod and always suspect that whatever you’re doing is being monitored. It sounds paranoid, but it’s your responsibility to your sources.

Newsrooms are getting smarter about protecting sources and giving them a safe way to share tips.

Learn more about journalism tools with Try This! — Tools for Journalism. Try This! is powered by Google News Lab. It is also supported by the American Press Institute and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.