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How encryption unlocks the truth

As digital communication becomes the default, journalists are adopting new tools to protect their sources

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Every day, humans generate more than one trillion megabytes of data online. But not all data is meant to be public. Think financial records, healthcare information, social media DMs – in some cases, you may even want your name to be kept private.

In this age of public-facing digital information, the need for privacy is even more pronounced for those working to keep the public informed. Investigative journalists and their sources rely on secure communications to tell stories that would otherwise never reach the public at large.

Some of the most earth-shattering journalism of our age was made possible by sources putting themselves at risk. From Watergate to Wikileaks whistleblowing, sources came forward anonymously. It was the responsibility of the journalists to protect the identity and privacy of these anonymous sources, and that provided the pathway for the truth to come out.

While protecting source privacy has always been an important part of investigative reporting, it is evolving in the digital age. During the Watergate scandal, old-fashioned legwork like secure phone lines and document drops were critical to the reporting. But these tactics can be costly, logistically difficult, and time consuming. For sources, that added time creates more opportunities for risks.

According to Josh Davis, founder of Epic Magazine and an accomplished investigative journalist, those risks can include “...everything from financial harm to physical harm to emotional harm.”

“If you’re doing a story about corporate malfeasance, it could be that they get fired. If it’s a story that’s in organized crime, it could be that they might get physically hurt or killed by the people that they’re talking about… the risks are real.”

Add those risks to the logistical challenges of cultivating sources, and you have a recipe for fewer revelations in the interest of the public good.

But conversely, as more of life happens online, there are more ways to communicate with each other than ever. And thanks to the widespread proliferation of smartphones and apps like WhatsApp, a powerful tool called End-to-End Encryption is now in the palm of our hands.

End-to-End encryption works like this: A message is scrambled in such a way that it can’t be read without a key. That key unlocks the true meaning of the message. In the case of WhatsApp, only the sender and recipient have that key. That means that they are the only ones who can decrypt the content of the message. No third party – not even WhatsApp itself – has the key.

And that technology is already proving critical to the way investigative reporting is done. According to the Internet Society, “encryption is an essential tool for journalists. If journalists cannot communicate in confidence with colleagues and sources, they cannot do their jobs in safety. Likewise, if they cannot protect the anonymity of their sources, those sources may not come forward, and the public will pay the price.”

Today, more than six billion people have smartphones, and over 2 billion of them are already using WhatsApp. Those billions of people are spread out all over the world but are able to connect with journalists from anywhere. And on WhatsApp, they know their messages, calls, and photos are all end-to-end encrypted. By making end-to-end encryption so accessible, apps like WhatsApp are making it possible for investigative journalists to reach more sources than ever.

Josh Davis has hope that this will lead to more reporting that really matters.

“As encryption technology spreads around the world, hopefully one of the good effects of it is that people who have information about bad actors around the world will be empowered to share that information with journalists who can then tell the story.”

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