María Elizabeth Macías Castro's killers left this note. (AFP)

Time to Watch Our Own Backs

A confluence of recent events are highlighting an overlooked issue in Information Communications Technology (ICT) security. The most well-publicized event was the killing of Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik  in Homs, Syria last month. Until recently, it seems that online security has always been the province of “geeks.” Organizations whether news outlets, corporations, or activists and advocacy groups have relied on employing IT experts to manage and maintain their firewalls, properly defend against SPAM and DDOS attacks, etc. This is no longer acceptable. Journalists, activists, human rights defenders need to start watching their own backs, and they need better tools to educate themselves.

Traditionally, organizations rarely expected that each individual should take responsibility for her own security. It’s not only the lack of personal responsibility, but also the accessibility of educational materials that is to blame.  As Danny O’brien at the Committee to Protect journalists noted last month, high-tech security information needs better dissemination. Individuals working in hostile environments are largely aware of the need to recognize analog threats to security, such as kidnapping or getting shot. Its time to begin taking responsibility to educate yourself about digital security threats. Furthermore, it is increasingly important for journalists to educate themselves about the security threats to their sources or they may become complicit in reprisals against these sources.

Journalists and their sources aren’t the only ones who need to be mindful of how their online habits put them at risk. Activists all over the world are increasingly leveraging ICT. The growing reliance on ICT and lack of proper “digital hygiene” increasingly puts them at risk. The Tibet Action Institute is a project that has been working on increasing the digital hygiene of Tibetan activists, since 2009. They have focused on raising awareness among Tibetans about the risks of sharing information with social networks, opening attachments from people they don’t know, and ensuring they utilize effective passwords and SSL connections. You might expect Tibetans would have the *most* understanding of their risk, due their independence and free expression threatened by the Chinese government for more than 50 years. In my own experience training activists connected to the Tibetan struggle, many are just as likely to follow poor practices. Because of this organizations like the Tibet Action Institute are very necessary, not only for Tibetans, but for activists, journalists, and average citizens all over the world.

If you had any doubts that being careful about your online habits only applies to Tibetans and others living in authoritarian regimes, look no further than Wired’s article about the new NSA Center. “Sitting in a restaurant not far from NSA headquarters, the place where he spent nearly 40 years of his life, Binney held his thumb and forefinger close together. “We are, like, that far from a turnkey totalitarian state,” he says.”

Small World News trains journalists, activists, and human rights defenders around the world, and what we consistently find is that individuals far too often fail to commit to good digital hygiene. I consistently find myself reminding even small groups of activists, you are only as safe as your weakest link. As we learn more and more about the extreme insecurity of technology we have come to depend upon, such as satellite phones, it becomes all the more important to provide the best manuals and advice to ensure best practices. This is why we released a guide to satphone security that is a follow-up to our previous guide to creating effective, high quality visual media more safely, and we expect these will be part of an evolving curriculum, our little bit of help to educate journalists, activists, and human rights defenders alike.

It was in this vein that I recently traveled to South by Southwest in Austin to participate in a panel called “How Not to Die: Using Tech in a Dictatorship,” (listen to the audio here) and will be speaking on a similar subject at a forthcoming Techchange seminar, New Media Tactics for Democratic Change.

If you’ll be attending the Online News Association and think increasing the dialogue about these topics is important, please vote for my session with Martyn Williams, “Basic online security for journalists – and why it matters,” and consider attending.

If you’re still not convinced our failure as individuals to take responsibility for ourselves is unacceptable, ask Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik, these two anonymous Mexican twitter users, or finally, Maria Elizabeth Macîas Castro.


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