Protecting confidential sources with secure communications 

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The public and holding those in power accountable vital work relies on confidential sources who share sensitive information with reporters. Protecting the identity of these sources is of utmost importance. Journalists are ethically obligated to shield their sources from potential retaliation or harm. However, communication between journalists and sources has become increasingly challenging in the digital age in the digital age.

Journalist-source communications

A journalist could meet with a source in person, communicating without leaving a digital trail. But today, much communication happens via emails, text messages, and online platforms. This digital communication, while convenient, comes with risks. Messages can be intercepted or hacked. Records of who communicated with whom be exposed. Stored messages can even be accessed by law enforcement or leaked to the public. For confidential sources, insecure digital communication could jeopardize their privacy and safety Source.

A wave of encrypted messaging apps has emerged to address the need for more secure journalist-source communications. Apps like Signal, WhatsApp, Telegram and others offer end-to-end encryption, meaning the sender and recipient read messages. This provides a much higher level of security and privacy compared to regular SMS text messages or emails. However, even with encryption, records of who communicated will still be revealed. Not deleted messages can later be exposed if a device is hacked or seized.

 Power of Ephemeral Messaging

This is where disappearing or self-destructing messages come in. Popularized by apps like Snapchat, brief messages are automatically deleted after being read by the recipient. Some secure messaging apps have now added disappearing message features as well. With disappearing messages, journalists and sources communicate without worrying about a trail of messages that could later be exposed. Setting messages to delete after a short time, like a few hours or days, provides an additional layer of security on top of encryption.

Disappearing Messages in Action

Here’s how disappearing messages typically work in secure messaging apps: The sender selects the disappearing message option and sets a time limit for when the message will self-destruct – say, 24 hours, for example. They then send the message as usual. The recipient of the message until the time limit expires. At that point, the message is automatically and permanently deleted from both the sending and receiving devices. It’s like the digital equivalent of a conversation that leaves no paper trail.

 Limitations and Trade-Offs 

Despite the security benefits, using disappearing messages has some limitations and trade-offs that journalists and sources should be aware of. Disappearing messages make keeping records or reviewing what was discussed later more arduous. Disappearing messages could be saved by quickly taking screenshots before a message is deleted. Disappearing messages are best used thoughtfully for the most sensitive parts of conversations rather than by default for all communication.

 

It’s important to remember that disappearing messages are just one tool for securing journalist-source communications. Realises and sources should still take steps like using encrypted messaging apps, keeping devices physically secure, having strong passwords, and being cautious about what information they share digitally in the first place—instead of disappearing messages as an added layer of security for when it matters most.