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Tips for staying safe on mobile


Picture of mobile phone image courtesy of Media Helping Media and available under Creative CommonsMobile communications are inherently insecure.

They can expose journalists working in sensitive environments to risks that are not easy to detect or overcome.

The following tips were put together by Safer Mobile as part the Mobile Media Toolkit, designed to help journalists and bloggers protect themselves when using social media on your mobile phone.

Reducing risk

The chances are that, as a journalist, you already use social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube:

  • To stay on top of stories and follow breaking news.
  • To find other reporters or citizen journalists reporting on specific issues or regions.
  • To reach out to particular sources or experts.
  • To break your own news and help cover a story as it unfolds.
  • To promote your own work and engage with your audience.

And, the chances are that you do a lot of this from your mobile phone.

However, by doing so you are potentially exposing yourself to dangers that you may not be aware of.

Note that the following tips do not guarantee security. Rather, we want you to understand and minimize the risks associated with using mobile communication in the field.

Assessing risk

How you assess your mobile communication risk depends on many issues, including your operational environment, the threats that you face, and your vulnerabilities.

Passwords

Your account details, such as username and password, can be discovered from your mobile device.

Once copied, someone can impersonate you or your news organization on social media sites.

Set a strong password and keep it and your account details safe.

Contacts

If you use Twitter or other social media sites to get to know and contact local experts, sources, or activists, keep privacy and security in mind when doing this from your mobile phone.

A record of your correspondence may be stored on your mobile device such as via call or SMS logs or direct messages.

A record of your correspondence may be stored on your mobile device such as via call or SMS logs or direct messages

Whether on mobile or not, if someone is not publicly and actively posting on social media sites, do NOT contact them via a public social message to ask questions, verify facts, or set up an interview concerning a sensitive topic or whilst reporting from a region of conflict.

This can put both you and your source in danger, for example, by revealing the identity of supporters or identifying people who were present at a particular event.

Direct Twitter or Facebook messages are not secure -- they may be stored in the app on your phone and on the Twitter/Facebook servers.

Do not put yourself or your contacts in danger

Browsers V Apps

On a mobile phone, you access social media sites in multiple ways: via dedicated apps, on a mobile browser, or via SMS or email.

For example, many Facebook mobile apps send data in plain text rather than over an encrypted connection.

Unless you are sure that the app you are using communicates over HTTPS, it is better to use your mobile browser and https to access Facebook’s mobile site.

Your phone’s web browser needs to support HTTPS.

Avoid older browsers, particularly Opera Mini Basic 3 and below 

Look for the “lock” icon on your mobile browser

All your communication with Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter should display a lock icon to indicate secure mobile browsing, and a web address starting with https:// rather than http://

With Facebook, set "Always Use HTTPS" in your account settings, but be aware that this setting is not applied when browsing from a phone.

You may also notice that some applications warn you that you cannot access them using HTTPS.

If you use such applications, be aware that they may turn the Always Use HTTPS setting off – you will need to go back into your account settings and turn it back on every time.

Social media sites can decide or be forced to hand over information about your account to third parties

Video

Mobile videos are often crucial components of a story. But remember that videos you upload to YouTube or other video sharing sites can reveal compromising information.

Mobile video can prove that you or others were at certain events.

Mobile video can prove that you or others were at certain events

Be aware of the risks involved in putting your face or voice on film, as well as those of others whose face, presence, or identity might be revealed.

You also run a risk that your social media account is deleted or suspended.

Depending on where you are reporting from you also run a risk that social media sites are blocked or become inaccessible.

Be aware of your video footprint and always have a backup

Staying anonymous

Filming and uploading directly from your mobile device saves time if you need to get information out quickly from the scene, but make sure that you have a backup (for example, you can save information on a separate memory card) in case your device is damaged or confiscated.

Unless your newsroom requires you to use a specified channel or account, create an anonymous YouTube account for posting videos from your mobile device.

Unless your newsroom requires you to use a specified channel or account, create an anonymous YouTube account for posting videos from your mobile device

While anyone can view YouTube videos online, it’s necessary to have a YouTube account in order to upload or share video content.

If you already have a Gmail account, you can sign in with that.

However, if you are trying to stay anonymous, it’s recommended that you do not link the YouTube account to identifying email addresses.

Sign up to YouTube anonymously and use this account on your mobile

Your Location

Finally, as a journalist, you should know that many of the social media sites you use will store geolocation information, and this may be potentially dangerous.

On advanced phones that run social media and other applications you should disable location services when they are not in use.

Some phones warn the user when an application requests location information, and the phone’s settings have an option to disable location services.

Individual applications also may have settings options that allow the user to disable location services.

Battery betrayal

Because a phone must transmit its location to function on the network, the location of a switched-on phone itself is also known by the network.

The only guaranteed method of preventing a phone’s location from being known is to turn its power off and remove the battery.

When turning off your phone, be sure to remove the battery – simply powering off your phone is not sufficient.

Consider leaving your phone at home for sensitive meetings and travel to and from sensitive locations.

At minimum, travel with the battery taken out to prevent your route from being geolocated.

Disable location services when they are not in use and disable your phone if necessary by removing the battery

Benefits of geolocation

Geolocation may also be used to your advantage.

It can be a record of where you were or where you were not. If a person goes missing, the network operator will have a record of where their phone was last.

Advanced phones can use applications that send the location to a website, where friends can track the phone’s location.

There are also applications that allow you to quickly send a short message with geolocation data if you are in danger.

Because satellites are much further away than cell towers, the satellite signal is comparatively weak.

While cellular phones often function indoors, GPS usually will not work without an unobstructed view of the sky.

Even though the phone does not transmit when listening for GPS radio signals, the process can use up your battery.

Turning off GPS on your phone will make your battery’s charge last longer.

Use geolocation to your advantage, especially in emergencies

Melissa UlbrichtThe author Melissa Ulbricht is a journalist who, at the time of writing was working with MobileActive. Melissa was the project leader for the creation of the Mobile Media Toolkit, which provided tools, resources, and case studies of how mobiles can be used for reporting, news broadcasting, and citizen journalism. She was also a contributor to the Safer Mobile site, now no longer accessible.


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