Top Secret: How Journalists Protect Confidential Tips and Document Drops

Protecting Confidential Sources and Document Drops

It’s a sign of the times: Many news agencies in Washington now are accepting various forms of leaked information.

It used to be that anonymous tips would come through a phone call or snail mail.

Now, journalists are using apps that encrypt text messages from sources, and many media agencies are promoting secure document drops.

“If you’re trying to protect your source, in this day and age, encryption is a requirement,” says Skylar Nagao, chief product officer with Montreal-based Peerio. “Having spoken with many journalists, people who are aware of their high-risk sources consider it a moral obligation to use encryption to protect them.”

Encryption itself has become much more mainstream. It’s what prevents people from reading messages and essentially keeps them private.

Mashable has a senior editor with a Peerio account for just this purpose. Several folks with The New York Times also list Peerio accounts in their profiles.

Want to reach The Associated Press? Here’s how you can submit a confidential tip.

And, if you’re trying to reach The New York Times newsroom, there are several ways for sources to get in touch.Skylar Nagao Peerio Encryption


In light of hacking and fear of an information crackdown, there are plenty of tools to help protect one’s anonymity.

And, more news agencies are climbing on board.

Politico currently is hammering out its plan, says an editor, who asked not to be named.

The Washington Post offers seven ways for sources and whistleblowers to get information to its reporters.

These include Signal, Peerio, WhatsApp, Pidgin, Encrypted Email, SecureDrop, and Postal mail to the News Lockbox.

“No system is 100 percent secure, but these tools attempt to create a more secure environment than that provided by normal communication channels,” the Post says.

In addition to using one of the above tools, The Post suggests sources use a secure computer to communicate (one that doesn’t maintain enterprise software or malware that could record activities) and “delete trails of communication that you store on your computer, such as copies of messages or your secure codename assigned when using the service.”Tips The New York Times

What’s to Come

Is it risky? Sure.

The New York Times wrote about this in The Media’s Risky Love Affair with Leaks.

“By virtue of their unvarnished nature, leaks have evolved into the realest of facts,” says John Herrman, a David Carr fellow at The New York Times, in his piece.

Skylar Nagao Peerio Encryption A relative new player to this scene, Peerio has been around a couple of years.

Its target mostly was business and organizational use. Peerio allows an unlimited number of files to be uploaded, and these files are entirely encrypted, meaning only you and your intended recipients have access.

Want to transfer a large, 400 MB video file? No problem.

Nagao says Peerio features end-to-end encryption, and the encryption starts on your computer.

“It’s like you put your file into a safe that only you have the key to,” he explained. “And every file you upload has its own little ‘safe.’”

Plus, Peerio is portable and fast. It has a username and password-type login, using fairly advanced cryptography.

Let’s Discuss Tips

So what makes a good news item?

The New York Times breaks it down: “A strong news tip will have several components. Documentation or evidence is essential. Speculating or having a hunch does not rise to the level of a tip. A good news tip should articulate a clear and understandable issue or problem with real-world consequences. Be specific. Finally, a news tip should be newsworthy. While we agree it is unfair that your neighbor is stealing cable, we would not write a story about it.”

Peerio’s Nagao recognizes it’s a touchy time for news agencies and journalists operating in the US and around the world.

All face varying degrees of risk.

It’s why companies like Peerio have been a big help.

“News agencies need this because news and free press are really dependent on the ability for information to flow,” Nagao says. “In the past, you could just send a letter. When information has more trouble flowing and more surveillance, potential sources fear talking with journalists and often for very good reasons.”

But this wasn’t even why Peerio was created.

It started for every day Joes who needed the ability to send secure files, with a strong emphasis in making this security usable.

“Journalists are not experts in security information,” Nagao says. “Everyone needs security, but not everyone is an expert in security. Our team is excited to be assisting news outlets. We’re very into the idea that we’re supporting free speech.”

Peerio App

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Christine Cube is a senior audience relations manager with PR Newswire and freelance writer. Follow
@cpcube or check out her latest on Beyond Bylines on PR Newswire for Journalists.

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