Empowering Journalists in the Era of Mobile Publishing

@SNOW/WWW, 2013, by Kanak Biscuitwala, Willem Bult, Mathias Lécuyer, Madeline Ross, Augustin Chaintreau, Monica Lam, Chris Haseman and Susan Mc Gregor

Citizens document demonstration in Cairo

Citizens document demonstration in Cairo

It’s undeniable – journalism is in the midst of a revolution. Smartphones are everywhere. Social publishing platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr are now the default way for people to share news. The changes wrought by these technologies are evident from streets of Cairo to the canyons of Wall Street, as activists and citizens join professional journalists in publishing news online.

These forces have created a new figure in the world of journalism: the citizen reporter. But social media also creates risks that endanger individuals and, by extension, the press as a whole. Dispatch seeks to provide an alternative, secure publishing platform for both professional and citizen journalists.

Social media platforms are run by private companies with their own profit-making agendas. Users’ activities can be – and frequently are – exposed to companies or governments. Additionally, social media networks are fragile creatures. All it takes to disrupt the system is to confiscate the device. In more extreme cases, as was seen in Egypt and Syria, the government can simply cut off the Internet in an entire region.

Citizen journalists are normal people who happen to be in the right place at the right time. Often they aren’t formally trained or tech-savvy, and in general they are not prepared to defend themselves against security threats. At times they are unaware such threats to their privacy or safety even exist. Even professional journalists, who are more aware of the risks, frequently sacrifice security for the sake of convenience.

In our research, we outlined three major threats to citizen journalists: surveillance, disconnection and discredit. Even in developed countries with strong press freedom policies, governments compel service providers like Google to surrender user data. Access to networked publishing services can be cut off by outlawing circumvention tools such as Tor or blocking Internet traffic in a region entirely. And it is alarmingly easy to discredit a citizen journalist, since they lack the institutional and financial support from established media organizations available to professional journalists.

Spying upon a journalist’s communications compromises not only the journalist, but also their sources. It also can lead to censorship, whether though blocking entire transmissions of information to servers, dismantling a network or censoring specific messages. A journalist’s voice can also be drowned out by a flood of useless or misleading information, preventing vital news from reaching the people who need it most.

These are the weaknesses of the existing, widely used publishing platforms. We set out to address these vulnerabilities and to propose solutions that would be resilient in the face of such threats.

If citizen journalists can create and maintain a digital presence that is unconnected to their physical identity (e.g. they have an anonymous handle), their safety and privacy would be better protected. However, social networks like Facebook require their users to maintain a single identity, often one that is tied to their physical identities. User data can be connected across media and linked to a specific device. Encryption is an obvious solution but encryption schemes are notoriously unfriendly to users. Making encrypted communications easy to use is the first step in defending user privacy.

But even if journalists’ identities are protected, it’s useless if the network itself is down. Publishing platforms need to be resilient to censorship and disconnection. One way to circumvent disconnection is by delivering content between mobile phones even in the absence of a network. Though these methods have been proven to function, they haven’t yet been tested in the field and placed under any real attack.

Similarly, publishing platforms could use the power of the crowd to handle pollution and manipulation. Just as upvoting and downvoting comments can help the most insightful content rise to the top, the power of the crowd can moderate and verify user-published content. Distributed algorithms can further assist by leveraging social properties to better identify spam or malicious content.

We also believe that citizens need protection as they consume news. The proliferation of commenting and sharing of news can create risks for audience members, who in fact are participating in the shaping of the news through their comments or sharing. News websites could provide “safe browsing” modes that prevent third-party monitoring and users could also be empowered to control their online identities and protect their data when posting comments or sharing stories. This could be done either through enabling anonymous comments or by offering a service that monitors users’ risk of de-anonymization and alerts them when their privacy is at risk of being compromised.

We put these observations into practice by developing Dispatch, a mobile app that enables secure, anonymous instant publishing. Users can publish text and pictures to a blog or server using authenticated pseudonyms. The pseudonym allows a user to protect her physical identity while still building a reputation as a reporter. Dispatch’s technology can also route messages between users, based on hashed recipient pseudonyms. If censors cut off connection to the Internet, Dispatch users can transmit content from phone to phone. As soon as a device reestablishes connection, it can instantly publish all of the stored messages.

© Dispatch

The increased participation of the public in news-sharing is a promising step forward for journalism. Our research highlights the need for better systems to protect citizens and their privacy in this new era.

You can find more information about our research and Dispatch at http://dispatchapp.wpengine.com

Photo credits: © Floris Van Cauwelaert via Wikimedia Commons, © Dispatch.