As COVID-19 spreads around the globe, so has misinformation about the virus. Log into any social media account and it’s easy to get confused by friends and family sharing contradictory messages on anything from infection rates, to local preventative measures, and what to do if we feel a dreaded cough coming on.
Truth matters – especially when public health is involved – and we often rely on journalists and news sources around the world to help us separate fact from fiction. And, whether we realize it or not, there’s a digital security tool that is a critical factor in the trust equation: encryption.
In a period that has seen various governments and law enforcement representatives propose laws that would weaken it, the pandemic is an important reminder of the role encryption plays to protect both journalists, their sources, and general news integrity.
End-to-end (E2E) encryption is a tool that keeps digital communications private by scrambling content so that only the sender and receiver have the keys to unscramble and read it.
This is crucial for journalists.
Journalists often rely on secure communication services like E2E messaging apps to connect with sources in a trustworthy way. With COVID-19 spreading, many organizations are asking employees to work from home and health organizations are advising the public to practice social distancing. This makes it significantly harder – if not impossible – for journalists to meet with sources in person. Instead, journalists and sources must communicate over digital services. By using messaging services equipped with end-to-end encryption, journalists can trust the integrity of information being shared, especially when this is the only option to hold confidential conversations.
E2E encrypted messaging apps are especially important for the safety of investigative journalists and their sources. Whistleblowers often only feel safe coming forward with information if they know that their communications are completely private and secure. These individuals are often at risk of compromising their jobs and reputations by tipping off news organizations. Secure communications between journalists and whistleblowers can help protect both parties when revealing the truth and holding institutions and individuals accountable.
Encryption also promotes a more trusting relationship between news organizations and their readership. When you go to a news organization’s website, you shouldn’t have to question whether the information you see matches what the staff intended to publish. Encryption makes this possible.
With the public health implications of COVID-19, the health and lives of people around the world depend on getting reliable information about the outbreak. We rely on these facts to inform our response to the pandemic. We use our news organizations for situational monitoring, keeping us informed on infection rates, quarantine measures, and how “shelter-in-place” orders may impact our situation. In good faith, many news organizations have removed paywalls on COVID-19 content to make sure that the public can more easily access essential health information.
With so many of us relying on the Internet to navigate the worst pandemic of our generation, it is critical that our news organizations’ websites are protected and secure. It could be disastrous if a bad actor were to intercept and alter data between the original publisher and the reader. Imagine if a website published an article with the number of cases in your area and shelter-in-place guidelines, but someone intercepted the data and changed it to say that infections have decreased and that it’s safe to no longer self-quarantine. In this hypothetical scenario, COVID-19 could spread even more quickly, overwhelm your local medical centers, and put lives at risk.
Without encryption, our most reliable sources of information are in jeopardy. Without encryption, our free press cannot do their jobs to dig for the truth, keep us informed, and hold institutions and individuals accountable. Without encryption, we could be fooled into thinking that a spoof site is genuine.
To learn more about the ways encryption impacts journalism, check out our co-authored factsheet with the Committee to Protect Journalists. For more information on protecting journalists, check out our partner at www.cpj.org and @pressfreedom on Twitter.