Teaching Digital Security

Living in a post-Snowden America is strange. We know about the reality of the surveillance state, we know about the NSA’s ability to track our every move, we even know about the very real possibility of our own names being one of the 1.2 million on the government watch list.

We know all of these things, and yet no one seems to be talking about it. (I doubt I even would if we weren’t discussing it in class.)

It’s not that we don’t care. Maybe it’s that we hear about so many ongoing injustices and global breaches of human dignity every day, we simply don’t have room in our heads to grapple with yet another. Not to mention that we’re more likely to pay attention to and take action against societal problems—police brutality, the detention and deportation of immigrants, hate crimes, gender violence, disenfranchisement, climate change—that have tangible effects on our livelihoods and those of our loved ones.

And it’s certainly not that we’re unaware. Our generation in particular has grown up alongside the rapid development of communication and surveillance tech; I think we of all people are able to conceptualize the scope of these technologies, because our lives are so deeply shaped by them. We’re aware of the role surveillance has played in our lives and we’ve accepted it as an unfortunate fact of the reality we live in.

The more we learn about the power of the surveillance state, the more hopeless it seems to resist it. So how do we resist something so powerful? Is there a better solution than throwing our phones away and moving into the wilderness?

Thankfully, as discussed in Chapter 7 of Journalism after Snowden, there are small steps we can take to make our online interactions and practices more difficult for outside parties to surveil. One of these solutions is to replace the apps we typically use for messaging or browsing with safer alternatives. Signal, for example, is a app that sends messages and calls that are end-to-end encrypted, and Tor is an internet browser that prevents trackers from following the sites you visit and keeps websites from learning your physical location (follow the links to download them). And we can take up other practices–such as covering our device cameras and using different, complex passwords for each site–that make it harder for the government, our employers, or anyone else from tracking us online.

Taking these steps, however, can only bring us so far. We need comprehensive education about digital security, especially for future journalists. I think that every higher-ed journalism program–including that at Simmons–should offer mandatory courses about keeping oneself digitally secure and protecting not only vulnerable information, but the vulnerable people that journalists so often work with from being surveilled. Doing so would be would be the most effective tool against the relative ignorance, apathy, and misinformation surrounding digital surveillance.

And the necessity goes beyond keeping ourselves and others safe. Future journalists need this training in order to do their jobs effectively. In Chapter 8, “Beyond PGP,” Trevor Timm writes that the Snowden revelations almost never happened because Glenn Greenwald–the journalist Edward Snowden came to with his information on NSA surveillance–nearly failed to set up the email-encryption software PGP. Had Greenwald been ultimately unable to install and use the software, the Snowden story would have surely gone to another, more tech-savvy journalist, if it would have been written at all. Will every journalist deal with a story of Snowden-level proportions at some point in their career? Probably not, but the fact that this story almost never came to light due to a lack of technological literacy is enough to drive home the point that at this point in time, journalists need to be familiar with this technology and its importance in order to be good at their jobs.

Surveillance technology is getting more and more powerful. Journalists, whistleblowers, and activists need to step up to meet it, and need to do so with the support of academic institutions. If universities want to create journalists that will truly check the government’s power over its people, they first need to adapt their programs to prepare their students appropriately.

As long as governments continue to commit atrocities, there will be whistleblowers that sacrifice everything to expose them. Our future journalists need to be ready to support them, and will only be able to do so if armed with the right education.


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