Sharing Digital Security Knowledge for Freelancers

Sharing Digital Security Knowledge for Freelancers
Tuesday, 17 March 2015 Written by Andrew Ford Lyons

More and more freelancers are seeing the importance of digital security, but there are still hurdles to overcome before understanding and adoption becomes widespread. Here's what RPT is doing to tackle the issue.

Finding better and more sustainable ways for freelancers to improve their digital safety practices has been a key part of the Trust's work over the last couple of years. A growing Digital Security Online Resource stands alongside resources on physical safety and security, and we are constantly looking at ways to make them accessible and friendly to freelancers.

To this aim, RPT attended the Circumvention Tech Festival earlier this month. I joined colleagues from Committee to Protect JournalistsFrontline Defenders, Cyber Arabs and more than 500 techies, journalists, human rights defenders and free speech advocates from around 40 countries. We the week exchanging knowledge and strategies on digital security practices, technological developments and training methods with each other and digital security developers including  Guardian ProjectEnigmail, and the Tails operating system.

I attended the 4-day Trainers Summit, hosted by RPT partners Tor Project, IREX and Internews. Its goal was to create a space to trade strategies and improve our practices for workshops, training and resources, and look at better ways to respond to the needs of our respective communities in East Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, Europe and the U.S. What became clear is that a lot of people are looking for digital safety training but there are very different ideas about what it is. For one person, it could be finding out ways to stay as discreet as possible. For another, it may be about leveraging technology to make sure they don't disappear. For someone else, it's about protecting the identity and location of a source. For freelancers, the following key issues stood out:

Commonalities: Like all media workers, freelancers need to consider the local laws, surveillance practices and capabilities in the country they're working. They need to consider potential adversaries who may want to target them or their sources, and think about how the work they're doing will raise their profile. What equipment will they be using to gather news, store it, carry it around with them, and transmit it to be published? 

Resources: Most freelancers won't have the same equipment budget that most staff journalists have, or the IT department to back them up, and will be more likely to travel with more of their technology and digital files on hand, making it potentially more vulnerable to theft, search or seizure. And getting commissioners (as well as sources) to use more secure communication channels can be a challenge. 

Technology: Technology has created numerous ways for a freelancer to work in the field faster and more efficiently. A mobile phone can become a portable news gathering device and media can be uploaded from just about anywhere from a laptop, or the camera itself. Each new technology presents its own set of challenges as well. The benefits are usually pretty quick to notice. The risks are often less immediately obvious, but the good news in all this is that there are tactics, behaviours and tools that can help. 

RPT approaches digital security from a risk assessment point of view, which asks freelancers to think about their specific needs, situations, assignments, and also plan for the digital activity around them.  Its a comprehensive resource which we urge all freelancers to use. But if freelancers are looking for more in-depth or face-to-face training, here are some tips:

Getting trained
  • If possible, find a trainer who's local, or knowledgeable about issues you're facing.
  • Bring the equipment you actually use on a day-to-day basis to your training.
  • Find a trainer who realises that digital security plays a contextual role in overall safety.
  • Have clear goals in mind about what you're hoping to get out of a training and talk those through with the trainer. Expect them to either challenge those goals or set expectations about what you can reasonably get out of the time that's available.
  • Try to coordinate a training session with other freelancers. One-on-one trainings are both rare and costly, and you want to be in a group with similar needs. Also, once you learn a skill, such as using encrypted email or instant messaging, you'll want others you can use it to keep in practice and collaborate on strategies to get others you contact to use it as well.
One of the festival's key points was that digital safety needs to be part of a holistic approach to overall security, integrated with both physical and mental wellbeing.  The Trust will continue to develop resources that are understandable, sustainable and up to date for freelancers.

Andrew Ford Lyons is RPT's Digital Producer and Project Manager. If you're a freelancer with a specific question about digital security that isn't covered in our resources, then feel free to drop him an email at andrew@rorypecktrust.org. If you're already using email encryption, you can find his key here.

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