DIgital Security and Source Protection for Journalists

McGregor, Susan E.

In order to maintain the confidence of–and therefore the access to–our sources, it is imperative that the journalistic profession as a whole develops a coherent set of professional practices around their protection. While judicial decisions and statutes in 49 states and the District of Columbia provide some form of reportorial “privilege,” the legal and technical realities of digital communications systems today are such that many journalists will never have the opportunity to invoke it.

For robust journalistic security practices to be effective, they must both offer the real protections that sources deserve and be reasonable enough to integrate into the process of newsgathering and publication. To achieve these ends, any approach must be grounded in a fundamental understanding of the technical and legal frameworks in which our digital communications exist, and how their sometimes strange intersections influence the way that journalists must operate. The goal of this paper is to provide a coherent and salient introduction to these frameworks, as a foundation for developing
supportable security practices for the journalism industry.

The remainder of this paper is organized into four sections. First and second, I present overviews of the current state of law and technology as they exist in and shape the realities of digital communications, privacy, and security with a focus on the needs of source protection for journalists. Third, I present some models for conceptualizing and implementing digital communications practices for journalists and newsrooms, in the context of current tools and communities. Finally, I offer recommendations for both industry development and academic research in the areas of digital privacy and security.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Tow Center for Digital Journalism
Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Columbia University
Tow Center for Digital Journalism Publications
Published Here
September 11, 2017