Leading researcher: Strong encryption protects journalism

Caitlin Vogus Headshot

Deputy Director of Advocacy

A illustrated yellow envelope appears against a green background, with a green lock and key on top.

Strong encryption is key to protecting newsgathering. "x-email-encrypted" by Electronic Frontier Foundation is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Saturday is Global Encryption Day, a worldwide effort to protect end-to-end encryption and defeat proposals that try to undermine it, such as bills in the U.S. that are ostensibly aimed at protecting children online, but could end up making the internet massively less safe for everyone by discouraging end-to-end encryption.

End-to-end encryption is critically important to journalists’ ability to protect confidential sources and newsgathering materials. That’s why Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF) is so concerned about proposed legislation that would discourage platforms from offering it. Earlier this month, FPF, the ACLU, and Americans for Prosperity organized a panel of experts from the worlds of business, domestic violence prevention, and journalism to talk to congressional staff about why encryption matters to so many different people.

One of those experts was Susan McGregor, associate research scholar at Columbia University’s Data Science Institute and co-chair of its Center for Data, Media & Society. In recognition of Global Encryption Day, we asked McGregor to answer a few questions via email about how and why encryption matters to journalists.

What are some examples of reporting that encryption helped with or made possible?

The truth is that encryption supports all kinds of reporting. While national security reporting like the Panama Papers is something that I've studied in depth and often gets a lot of attention, the reality is that encryption is at least as important for essential accountability reporting at the local and regional levels as well. Whether it’s reporters covering local and state elections, agricultural and labor practices, or smaller newsrooms setting up tiplines, encryption — and the technologies that employ it effectively — are critical to securing journalists' communications with sources and each other.

So then it’s not just reporters on the national security beat using encryption?

No, not at all. In addition to being important for protecting the information that journalists are provided by all types of sources, encryption is key to making sure that information and communications within news organizations are kept safe as well. Unfortunately, there are a growing number of examples of aggressive tactics being used against news organizations doing important local investigations, and encryption is crucial for allowing them to protect their work.

Some argue we should have a “backdoor” that lets law enforcement access end-to-end encrypted messages in emergencies or for criminal investigations that meet a certain threshold.

What is sometimes described as a "backdoor" for law enforcement is really just another word for “key.” In important ways, encryption “locks” information; “keys” are used to “unlock” that information. The problem with having multiple keys is that it’s possible for any one of them to fall into the wrong hands more easily. Though it would be great if we could trust that these extra keys would only be accessible to the “right” people at the “right” time, the reality is that even very valuable keys of this type have been stolen in the past. And of course, if the people you're investigating have access to that key, it’s going to be an even bigger problem.

If encryption is weakened or eliminated, are there other ways for journalists and confidential sources to protect themselves from surveillance?

While there are ways to protect journalist-source communications without encryption, the result would be even less effective reporting at the local and regional levels, because the effort and cost of reporting safely would go up dramatically, and many important stories simply wouldn’t be possible. The truth is that you can’t really use any digital technologies securely without encryption, so losing strong encryption would basically eliminate effective reporting on technology products and companies, for one. But even where one could theoretically replace digital tools with analog alternatives, the scope of what newsrooms could cover safely would still be reduced dramatically.

What alternatives should lawmakers consider for protecting children and others online without weakening or outlawing encryption?

Let's be clear: Encryption is necessary for protecting everyone who has or will have an online life, including — if not especially — children. Without encryption, it would be impossible for anyone to have truly private digital communications of any kind. Given the current rapid advances in AI, essentially any image or video, no matter how innocuous, can be manipulated into something harmful or exploitative — and without encryption, bad actors will have unfettered access to basically any digital image or video in existence. For anyone concerned about protecting children's safety and development, that is a terrifying prospect. Lawmakers truly concerned about protecting children need to focus their efforts on supporting methods for identifying harms to and providing support for children before they are harmed in the first place, not on approaches that wait for evidence of that harm to make it to the internet or anywhere else.

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