Workshop Report


In light of the 2023 Rightscon conference in Costa Rica, GFMD hosted the “Securing Journalism: the importance of Encryption in protecting media freedom” workshop to discuss how Encryption can prevent the growing threats of digital surveillance on journalists and their sources. Participants primarily included non-governmental organisations from the MENA region, Europe Central America and Asia.

The workshop was structured around the following questions

  • What is Encryption? Why is Encryption important for journalists?

  • What action is needed to protect and promote the use of encryption? (break-out rooms). - What is your experience in using such tools? Challenges? Stories? Changes in their work? Benefits?

  • Why is encryption important for journalists?

The five pillars of assurance (confidentiality, integrity, availability, authentication, non-repudiation) regularly came up whereby encryption addresses confidentiality issues - providing greater digital security to journalists. However, participants and speakers emphasised the threats and limitations such as unprotected metadata, compromised or seized mobiles from police or governments or unstable internet connection hindering encryption’s usage varying to countries and regions.

The participants identified challenges and offered regional perspectives and solutions on using encryption, such as greater awareness, adapting encryption to journalists’ IT skills, media organisations standardising encryption, rebooting phones and deleting messages daily to increase journalists’ safety from spyware and infiltration.

Protecting journalists with encryption

In response to what journalists do and what digital threats journalists face, participants expressed how journalists investigate, hold power to account, protect democracy and protect their sources - faced with growing digital threats such as doxxing, digital surveillance, censorship, hacking and harassment.

Journalists have growingly faced digital threats and challenges in protecting their sources, communicating safely, working free from surveillance while navigating local press restrictions. In addition to journalists, Callum Voge expressed the importance of encryption for minority group organisations such as the LGBTQI+ community, women’s health advocates, human rights advocates and survivors of abuse organisations. In accordance with participants’ contribution, Rawan Damen and Geoff Hunter expressed the need to consider encryption and journalists’ security holistically.

We believe in physical, digital, legal, mental, emotional, and career safety” - Rawan Damen, Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism.

The Director General of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism, shared examples of obstacles and regional limitations to using encryption: such as the Egyptian police force limiting movements of individuals having Signal on their mobile phones or Sudan lacking stable internet and electricity infrastructures to use these services, emphasising the need to consider local solution for local problems. Although journalists are encouraged to utilise encrypted apps such as Signal, IT specialist Alan Kawamara raised growing concerns about the Telegram app and data transit between users - considering the platform is not entirely encrypted.

Defining encryption, how it works and its threats

The Chief Technology Officer, Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, Geoff Hunter, defined encryption as “the process of encoding information” including messages, emails or phone calls. More specifically, the process includes encoding the original information in a ciphertext which is presented in an encrypted format to the designated recipient who holds the key to encrypt the data. Geoff Hunter explains the 2 types of encryption

  • Symmetric encryption: The sender and receiver withhold the same key, or password, to encrypt and decrypt the data. This method presents threats as those who withhold the key/password can access and control the data.

  • Asymmetric (public key) encryption: This method consists of having a private key (to decrypt data) and public key (to encrypt data) to protect it from unauthorised access.

Geoff Hunter explained how encryption is a mathematical process, using algorithms which are increasingly being challenged by the growth of computational power, aiming at cracking encryption.

It's a bit of an arms race, like a lot of information security, or other security for software, there are new ways of using the latest computer computational power to crack encryption” - Geoff Hunter, Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP)

In collaboration with the Internet Society, GFMD has produced a comprehensive infographic describing the relevance of encryption, how it works, available toolkits for journalists and why it is crucial for media protection.

During the workshop, participants also had the opportunity to discuss the following questions in breakout rooms to share their experience with encryption and the existing benefits and challenges.

  • What is your experience in using such tools?

    • Challenges? Stories? Changes in their work? Benefits?

  • Why is encryption important for journalists?

Their contribution underscored several challenges, including a lack of awareness of encryption and its use, concerns regarding surveillance, and metadata leaking. Although dangers remain, Geoff Hunter provided practical methods to reduce device threats, such as rebooting mobile phones daily, keeping them patched, and frequently erasing messages on Signal in the case of a seized phone.

To tackle the lack of awareness, Callum Voge proposed standardising encryption technologies used by media organisations, increasing training for editors in Chief and decision-makers, and encouraging using Signal in countries such as Tunisia to combat cybercrime legislation and disinformation. SembraMedia’s contribution addresses language barriers by offering reports and resource tools in Spanish to accommodate non-English speakers. For Andreea Belu, the legislative and political narratives constitute growing threats towards encryption and journalists’ safety.

Andreea Belu elaborated on the laws hosting encryption safeguards, such as the European Media Freedom Act, fearing the legalisation of spyware and its usage against journalists - encouraging the digital rights and media and journalism organisations to advocate for encryption rights for journalists.

Legislative threats to encryption

Andreea explained the European Digital Rights organisation’s (EDRi) efforts against the suggested methods of the United States Child Sexual Abuse Regulation - despite rightfully combating such a horrific crime, using client-side scanning undermines encryption. Gender and reproductive organisations, human rights defenders and investigative journalists have spoken up against this law, resulting in over 130 NGOs and EDRi’s Stop Scanning Me campaign against the Child Sexual Abuse Regulation.

Andreea mentioned the ongoing trial in France criminalising encryption and the worrying “Brussels effect” whereby passed laws influence other European countries to replicate similar approaches, implementing ill solutions and ultimately - undermining human rights globally. Callum Voge’s intervention shedded light on the worrying legislative developments and the role of legislators in the United Kingdom with the Online Safety Bill and the EARN IT Act in the United States.

Callum's recommended solutions address the alarming developments of criminalising encryption and endangering the safety of journalists and minority communities around the world.

Promoting and protecting encryption: action points

  • Joint advocacy, such as the Global Encryption Coalition, analyses proposals, provides recommendations and applies pressure on Governments to influence policy outcomes - all efficient methods, according to Callum Voge.

  • Reporting on the topic enables growing awareness of encryption’s benefits and brings the issue to the public. The importance of sharing the benefits of encryption fosters a shift from a negative to a positive narrative, says Rawan Damen.

  • Seeking technical sources to understand better government or legislative proposals is essential to ensure accurate comprehension - “please do not take government claims at face value”, says Callum Voge. As such, among the 110+ local chapters, the Global Coalition on Encryption may have relevant regional information.

This workshop promoted knowledge sharing and community building around issues such as digital surveillance and criminalised encryption, which would not have been possible without the speakers' and participants' involvement and contribution.

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