Using mobiles safely for journalism
Journalists use mobile devices for creating, editing, and sharing content, as well as for communicating with sources, newsrooms, and colleagues.
Mobile phones provide countless benefits - they are portable, discreet, and a growing number of high-quality apps make them great tools for reporting - but they also present significant security risks.
Important considerations to keep in mind
Give some thought to what would happen if you lost your mobile device right now.
- What potentially sensitive information is on it?
- Do you have the names or contact information of anonymous or protected sources?
- Do you have story notes or leads, or unpublished multimedia images from an event that would place participants in danger if their identify and role becomes known?
- Do you have the time and location of upcoming events or interviews?
- What about remote access to your newsroom editorial schedule or other internal systems?
- Your location and beat are considerations as well.
- Where are you working?
- Is the network controlled by the state?
- What is the surveillance environment?
- Is there evidence of surveillance against journalists?
What potentially sensitive information is on your mobile?
It’s not just the information on your phone but also your communications that are potentially compromised.
For reporters and citizen journalists to be more safe in insecure regions, careful planning and strategic considerations are required.
But, remember: There is no security in mobile - but there are ways to be smarter and safer.
There is no security in mobile - but there are ways to be smarter and safer
The Mobile Media Toolkit
We draw much of the content here from both the Mobile Media Toolkit and Safer Mobile, which was a project of MobileActive.org designed to help activists, human rights defenders, and journalists assess and mitigate mobile communications risks. At the moment these sites are not accessible, so the links have been removed.
In this training piece, we help you identify and understand some basic risks involved with with your mobile use -- as a trained reporter, photojournalist, citizen journalist, blogger, or for anyone who witnesses and documents a news event on a mobile phone.
In subsequent training articles, we’ll highlight tips on taking safer mobile photos and videos, covering protests or peaceful assemblies, safer Twitter and Facebook use, and mobile security tools and apps you can download and use right now.
General Mobile Risks
If you are a journalist working in an insecure region or covering sensitive issues, you will want to be aware of the general mobile risks you face.
Here is a snapshot:
Your mobile service is operated by your mobile network operator.
As it manages your communication, it is also able to record certain types of messages you send, as well as information about your communication activities and your device.
When your phone is switched on, the network knows your location, triangulated from the cell towers nearby that record your phone’s signal.
Your location might be accurate to as much as a few meters in a densely populated area.
You can be heard, traced and followed
Photos, Video, and MMS
Whether you are a trained reporter, photojournalist, citizen journalist, or if you simply witness and record a news event, you may face risk if you use your phone to capture and share multimedia content.
The date and time you took a photo or video, as well as location information, may be saved as part of the descriptive information, or EXIF data.
If you upload photos or videos to a news site or blog, the descriptive information may be preserved.
Anyone viewing your media could see where, when, and with what phone you created the image.
There are, however, steps you can take to better protect yourself when using your mobile to capture news content.
One tip is to remove identifying information from your mobile images.
Another option is to change certain account settings when uploading images.
Don't give away your location
Voice: this call may be recorded
As a reporter or citizen journalist, you likely use your phone for basic actions like calling your sources to check a quote or to stay in touch on story assignments with editors or colleagues.
If you work in insecure regions or report on sensitive topics or issues, you need to be aware of the risks you face when placing such seemingly innocuous calls.
As with any conversation, you could be overheard or recorded by someone nearby.
Your conversation could be eavesdropped or recorded by an app installed on your phone without your knowledge.
Calls can be monitored and recorded by network personnel, and recordings may be passed (legally or illegally) to someone outside the operator.
But, there are steps you can take to better protect yourself.
For instance, use a basic phone, without apps, rather than a smartphone.
If you must use a smartphone, use an encrypted VOIP application instead of calling through the mobile network.
Others can hear your conversations
Like voice, SMS is used by mobile journalists to set up meetings with sources, to share story notes, or to communicate with editors, newsrooms, or colleagues.
But, there are security risks in using SMS in your work. SMS messages are sent in plain text.
They are not encrypted, so the content is not hidden or disguised in any way. Anyone who intercepts the messages can read your SMS.
Sent or received messages stored on a phone or SIM are vulnerable if the phone or SIM is lost or stolen.
To better protect yourself, set the SMS storage to very low or none.
Turn off the option to save outbound messages and delete messages regularly.
SMS messages are not hidden