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Journalists find digital ways to protect anonymity of sources

Edward Snowden created the current push in the media for protection from revealing sources when he leaked NSA documents in May.

Edward Snowden created the current push in the media for protection from revealing sources when he leaked NSA documents in May.

Last week Forbes launched SafeSource, an online application that allows sources to submit documents and tips anonymously to reporters.

SafeSource is Forbes’ version of SecureDrop, an application provided by the Freedom of the Press Foundation, which took DeadDrop on Oct. 15.  DeadDrop was an open-source whistleblower submission system created by Aaron Swartz.

These developments are coming in a year that has thrust privacy rights into the spotlight. Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee, brought the issue to the forefront in May when he leaked secure National Security Agency documents.  Those documents showed that NSA had been collecting phone records.  Soon after, the Justice Department subpoenaed Associated Press phone records from 2012. It also listed James Rosen, a Fox News reporter, as a criminal co-conspirator in order to gain access to his emails and phone records. In addition,  the Obama administration has prosecuted eight people who have leaked classified information to the media under the Espionage Act of 1917.

“We’ve reached a time in America when the only way the press can assure the anonymity and safety of their sources is not knowing who they are,” said JP Barlow, co-founder and board member of the Freedom of the Press Foundation in a statement released in October.

It’s not a surprise that media outlets are looking for new ways to protect reporters and their sources.  Protection of sources first became an issue in 1972 with the Supreme Court case Branzburg vs. Hayes, and reporters have been looking for ways to protect themselves since.  The Free Flow of Information Act was introduced in the Senate in September, but many journalists still aren’t sold on the bill because the government defines who qualifies as a journalist and is protected under the proposed law.  This is the only legislation pending for now,  so journalists must find protection on their own.

That’s where SecureDrop comes in. SecureDrop isn’t the first attempt at an online anonymous drop box.  The Wall Street Journal attempted a similar application called SafeHouse in 2011, but it never caught on.

SecureDrop uses the browser application Tor, which triple-encrypts the message and its sender by bouncing the signal off of multiple IP addresses. Snowden used Tor when he leaked the NAS documents, and it is still considered secure by many journalists.

The Freedom of the Press Foundation is offering the application to any news organization that is interested.  The foundation works to raise money for whistleblowers and news outlets focused on exposing mismanagement, corruption and law breaking by the government.  The New Yorker also uses the application through its StrongBox project.

“Today it seems like those protective tools are instead more of a necessary countermeasure to simply preserve the role of the media in a new age of surveillance,” said Andy Greenberg who explained Forbes use of the software.

Protection of sources is becoming more of an issue because people want their privacy but also want to be protected by their government.  The line created by this is thin and is rarely navigated successfully.  Applications like SafeSecure might be what news organizations need right now because having a truly anonymous source might be the only way to avoid being handed a subpoena.

_By Robert Vencil

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