What are the risks of using Skype, Facebook, WhatsApp and Co.?

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Graphic: flickr/mmapstone

By Natalia Karbasova

New technologies empower journalists and help them reach audiences all over the world. Their words, pictures and sounds can be transmitted around the globe in a matter of seconds. Many reporters use Skype, WhatsApp, Facebook, Google Mail, Tumblr, Blogger, WordPress and Dropbox to communicate, store data, collaborate and promote their work.

But there are risks associated with using these tools and journalists need to be prepared for the worst-case scenario. Let’s have a look at the popular services for journalists, their risks and possible, more secure alternatives.

Important: for more free alternatives to proprietary software, check out the website PrismBreak.

Skype

Functionality: Video conferences, chats with newsmakers, interviews and interview recordings.

Risks for journalists: Skype was always assumed to be safe because of its end-to-end encryption. But the Snowden revelations have revealed that the NSA has been listening to Skype since 2011 and it’s unclear to what extent other agencies are able to intercept the service. Skype “can no longer be trusted to protect user privacy,” says Eric King, head of research at Privacy International.

Possible solutions: Use Skype as if it were a public forum. Everything you say or write may be used against you.

Alternatives: Jitsi (encrypted text, voice and video messaging), Linphone (encrypted voice and video chat), Mumble (encrypted voice chat).

WhatsApp

whatsappFunctionality: WhatsApp is one of the most popular messaging apps in the word. It lets you send messages without having to pay for sms services although the person you are sending to also has to be using the app. It’s an easy way to stay in touch with the newsroom and colleagues while in the field, especially as you can exchange images, video and audio.

Risks for journalists: Currently, WhatsApp claims messages are encrypted but because the company won’t say what method they use, it’s difficult to know how secure the service is. There are reports that WhatsApp messages sent over wifi and other public channels can be decrypted. There are apps out there which try to make WhatsApp more secure.

Possible solutions: Resort to more secure apps

Alternatives: Pidgin (off-the-record messaging), TorChat (anonymous P2P chat), ChatSecure (formerly Gibberbot) and Xabber for Android.

Facebook

Functionality: You don’t really need to have Facebook explained to you, right? Journalists use this global social network to share their work, crowdsource information, stay in touch with colleagues and newsmakers, follow companies and news on their beats, subscribe to important people and participate in groups.

Risks for journalists: Facebook is a huge data collector. The list of your friends may influence the decision of local authorities to grant you a visa to work in a certain region, and the open groups you are a member of let strangers know about your interests even if your profile is closed to external visitors. Also, Facebook is constantly experimenting with new tracking methods.

Facebook privacy settingsPossible solutions: Be very careful publishing information on Facebook. Once it’s online, you lose control of it. Go to the privacy settings in the upper right corner of your Facebook page and make sure you have all the precautionary measures taken. Always log out of your Facebook account when surfing other websites.

Alternatives: To be able to use other, private social networks, you’ll need a certain level of technical proficiency. Of course you need to remember that it’s difficult to have the same reach as Facebook when using its alternatives. Diaspora is a community-run, distributed social network that allows you to be in control of your information. Other alternatives: Buddycloud, Friendica and RetroShare.

Twitter

twitter_logoFunctionality: Twitter is good for following breaking news and breaking news yourself. You can also use it to collaborate with others, find communities, and follow trends and topics.

Risks for journalists: Everything you do on Twitter is visible. If you have geotagging enabled, it can be easy to locate you. The service is also a haven for malware attacks.

Possible solutions: Be careful what you post and whom you follow. Don’t create open lists unless you are absolutely sure you won’t get into trouble by doing this. Disable geotagging.

Alternatives: Sorry, there isn’t really one.

Gmail / Googlemail

Functionality: This is one of the most popular email clients with integrated tasks, contacts and calendar.

Risks for journalists: Gmail has fairly robust security for everyday use but it’s not advisable if you need to keep your communications secret. Google scans your email’s content to better target you with ads and also complies with government requests for information. Kapersky has more information about the risks here.

KolabPossible solutions: Don’t use your Gmail account to discuss sensitive issues. Add two-step verification to your account to prevent third parties from cracking it.

Alternatives: MyKolab (hosted in Switzerland), Riseup.

Google Drive

google driveFunctionality: Create, store and share documents, presentations and spreadsheets in the cloud. The service is connected to your Google account.

Risks for journalists: Your information can be made available to government agencies.

Possible solutions: Use Google Drive only for documents with no great importance. Use local physical backup (external hard drives, USB flash drives) when possible.

Alternatives: OwnCloud, Sparkleshare, Tahoe-LAFS.

Google search

Functionality: Google search is pretty much the gold standard and definitely the most popular option for research on the web. There are a number of techniques such as advanced search that help you achieve better results.

Risks for journalists: Google stores your searches. This information can be made information available to government agencies upon request.

Possible solutions: Try other search engines.

Alternatives: DuckDuckGo (anonymous web searches), Startpage (private, unlogged web searches), YaCy (decentralized web search), Seeks Project (open decentralized platform for collaborative search).

Dropbox

Functionality: Store text, audio and video files in the cloud. Dropbox comes in handy when you need to synchronize your data across different devices.

dropboxRisks for journalists: Your data might be available to third parties.

Possible solutions: Always encrypt your data before moving it to Dropbox. You can use Boxcryptor or free encrypting tools like TrueCrypt or AxCrypt. Read more about file encryption here.

Alternatives: The same as for Google Drive: OwnCloud, Sparkleshare, Tahoe-LAFS.

Tumblr/Blogger/WordPress

Functionality: Publishing platforms for text, audio and video. They help journalists blog on issues, establish a web presence and thus become more visible to their audience.

Risks for journalists: Your data might be available to third parties.

Possible solutions: Try self-hosting. This will help you stay in control of your data. For example, WordPress offers an option to self-host your data.

Alternatives: WordPress.org (self-hosted website publishing), Noblogs (blog publishing platform based on WordPress), MediaGoblin (decentralized media publishing platform), ZenPhoto (self-hosted media management system).

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