Don't hack the messenger

by Jane Whyatt

Cyber attacks against media outlets and individual journalists are prompting many to use encrypted channels and take training courses in digital self-defence. How can journalists best protect themselves, and what are some of the threats and obstacles they are being confronted with in that regard?

Cyber security Cyber security. (Public domain photo,

In 2019, there has already been an attack on Malta’s campaigning online news portal The Shift News, via the DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) method. This is a crude bludgeon-like instrument that simply means a network of computers is secretly and illegally harnessed together to form a ’botnet’. The botnet bombards the target website with online messages, causing it to crash.

At The Shift News, the DDoS attack coincided with the publication of an investigation into a controversial sales deal involving public hospitals, alleging corruption.

Cyber blocking

Equally crude is the blocking by governments of individual Twitter accounts belonging to critical journalists or activists. The award-winning 'Turkey Blocks' campaign documented thousands of these attacks. It has now broadened its reach and re-launched as 'NetBlocks', a crowdsourced observatory keping watch on internet censorship.

Meydan TV, run by exiled Azeri journalists, had a different but equally devastating problem when its YouTube channel was blocked over alleged (and incorrect) claims that it had infringed copyright. This is an example of how the regulations that govern the internet can be hijacked by repressive governments to silence their critics and prevent the publication of investigative journalism.

The Romanian authorities reached for a different regulation, the General Data Protection Directive (GDPR), to harass investigative reporters at the 'Rise Project'

State actors using cyber weapons to silence critics are difficult to expose, as journalist Dave Lee reports on Medium. This is because they can hide behind the excuse that 'national security' or 'prevention of terrorism' requires these covert tactics. However, it is not impossible to discover and publish details of online interventions by governments, and Lee offers some pointers in his article.

For individual journalists a campaign of hate and threats on personal social media channels can be hard to block. Not everyone can follow the example of Finnish YLETV reporter Jessikka Aro, who tracked the trolls who were threatening her to a building in St. Petersberg, Russia. Aro won the top Scandinavian journalism prize for her report.

Daniel Moßbrucker Daniel Moßbrucker. Photo for Uncovered Conference speaker lineup, provided by Moßbrucker.

Interview: Self-defence against cyber attacks

Leading the international campaign to equip journalists like Aro with self-defence tools is Reporters Without Borders Germany (ROG). Their trainer Daniel Moßbrucker led two workshops at the ECPMF Uncovered Conference in Berlin, and he now shares some of his expert knowlege in an interview with the ECPMF.

ECPMF: What are the main dangers that journalists face from cybercriminals?

The main danger for journalists might be that there are so many different dangers. State surveillance, data tracking of big technology companies as well as criminal hackers or trolls on social media – it is hard to identify all these dangers and protect yourself individually against this. Doing everything for your digital security would probably mean that it costs so much time that journalists would have no time for their job anymore.

How secure are encrypted channels such as email and darkphones?

There is no absolute security, and there will never be. However, correctly implemented and used, strong end-to-end encryption for emails, for example, is almost unbreakable today. There are a lot of software solutions that increase the level of security in an easy way. It is important that journalists analyse all the products they use and know exactly what they do – and what the tools do not protect them against.

In what circumstances might it be better not to use an encrypted channel? For example, some Turkish media workers have been arrested because they used Bylock and this was the reason why the authorities labelled them as terrorism suspects.

In some countries, the use of security tools [alone] could make journalists [be considered] suspicious. For example, the use of an encrypted channel might bring journalists on the radar if it is very unlikely to [be used] in the countries. Also, we see that the use of VPN is more and more considered to be dangerous in some countries. Journalists have to do research about the situation in their home country and always make a personal assessment on whether a tool brings more pros or cons.

When you are training journalists in digital self-defence, what do they tell you about their worries? For example, is wiretapping a big concern, trolling on social media, DDoS attacks against their blogs and news portals, or are there other factors?

The worries of journalists depend completely on their personal situation. In general, journalists from repressive countries are more concerened about 'traditional enemies' such as intelligence agencies. These adversaries have [many] potential measures to compromise the integrity of communication. Journalists from [other] countries are more concerned about data collection by the big technology companies, such as Facebook and Google – and about trolls on social media or privately motivated hackers.

How seriously does Reporters Without Borders Germany take the question of cyber security, and where does ROG / RSF think the biggest threat lies (Russia? China? Mafia? State surveillance by German authorities?)

Reporters Without Borders Germany runs a fellowship program in which we train journalists from all over the world in digital security. We teach them intensively for months, so that they can also spread the word in their home countries. The biggest threat lies mostly in the government of their home countries.

But in the end, digital security is a very personal thing and needs individual answers."

Yes, it's personal

This emphasis on the individual was reinforced at the Uncovered Conference by one of the speakers, investigative reporter and IJ4EU grant recipient Sanne Terlingen of Amsterdam’s Small Stream Media.

She told the ECPMF: "When I arrived in Djibouti, I was the only white person and also the only one with two satellite phones and an encrypted laptop. So that made me an object of scrutiny and drew attention to me. Sometimes it’s better not to have all that technical kit."

For reporters who do feel the need for technical support in digital self-defence, Daniel Moßbrucker may be contacted through Reporters Without Borders Germany. He has encrypted means of communication to ensure confidentiality and security. Naturally!