Susan E. McGregor

Announcements, Events, Past Events, Research

Digital Security and Source Protection For Journalists: Research by Susan McGregor



The law and technologies that govern the functioning of today’s digital communication systems have dramatically affected journalists’ ability to protect their sources.  This paper offers an overview of how these legal and technical systems developed, and how their intersection exposes all digital communications – not just those of journalists and their sources – to scrutiny. Strategies for reducing this exposure are explored, along with recommendations for individuals and organizations about how to address this pervasive issue.







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Comments, questions & contributions are welcome on the version-controlled text, available as a GitBook here:



Digital Security for Journalists A 21st Century Imperative

The Law: Security and Privacy in Context

The Technology: Understanding the Infrastructure of Digital Communications

The Strategies: Understanding the Infrastructure of Digital Communications

Looking Ahead



Innovation Showcase

Innovation Showcase 2014 / Browser Topic Reader


Browser Topic Reader

Noura Farra, Philip Liou, Joseph Taiwo Orilogbon


One way to increase engagement with news articles is to provide users with visual feedback about their favourite news topics and reading habits.  Currently, users spend a lot of time online reading news articles about various topics which can change from week to week. However, they rarely have a convenient and accurate means of aggregating statistics which can enable them to understand their own reading tastes and trends.

By providing analytics to users about their news consumption trends, our tool provides feedback that can alter news consumption positively. For example, a user might realize she is spending too much time reading about “Lindsay Lohan drug addiction” and that she should spend more time reading about other “worldly” events, such as “presidential election 2016”. By providing feedback on reading habits, the proposed tool would increase user engagement with news articles.

The proposed tool we developed is a Chrome browser extension which visualizes a user’s top consumed news topics based on her browsing history. It shows users the breakdown of types of news stories on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis, and allow them to keep track of their news interests, as well as how they change over time. The extension analyzes news articles based on URL history from the browser and presents a summary of the most popular topics for the selected period, in the form of two types of visualizations: a stacked area chart showing evolution of trends over time, and a Treemap which shows the importance of different news topics to users, based on distribution of keywords. The user has the ability to show and hide topics, as well as zoom in on different topics in the Treemap. Finally, we also show the user links to example articles from each topic.



Innovation Showcase

Innovation Showcase 2014 / IRIS


Iris: Visualizing Geopolitical Sentiment 

Sahil Ansari, Shensi Ding, Robert KuykendallBo Xu

IRISPromoIRIS is a web application that provides a map of global news of positive or negative sentiment. Users can search for top recent news by country or word phrases and visualize its sentimental impact on foreign relations. IRIS was inspired by NewsStand, a research application which extracts location information from news stories and orients them on a zoomable map.
We envision IRIS being used for education and exploration of current events. News readers would be able to broaden their understanding of issues by looking into specific countries as well as countries connected by sentiment. Ideally, users exploring the map would feel a sense of serendipity as visually relationships pop leading to further exploration.



Innovation Showcase

Innovation Showcase 2014 / InfoScribe


InfoScribe: Unlock the Stories Trapped in PDFs

Aram Chung, Madeline Ross

InfoScribePromoInfoScribe helps investigative journalists unlock the stories trapped in PDF’s. Specifically, InfoScribe is a generalized, web-based crowd-sourcing document transcription platform that invites the public to participate in the journalistic process by transcribing specified data fields from documents. What does that mean in plain English? We are building a platform where journalists can upload image-based documents (such as PDFs) and a community transcribes those documents.

Despite the exponential increase of digital data today, newsrooms aren’t getting any larger and OCR technology isn’t advancing fast enough. Though on its surface greater availability of digital public records should be a boon to investigative journalism, the reality is that these records are often published as unstructured, image-based documents, or without essential metadata.

While providing journalists with access to data sources that would otherwise be beyond their reach, InfoScribe seeks to cultivate meaningful, long-term personal investment in the journalistic process by giving transcribers access to the journalists who are doing work they care about, as well as publication credit for their contribution. We want to invite community participation to increase the transparency of, and the public’s confidence in, the journalistic process.



Innovation Showcase

Innovation Showcase 2014 / The Land


The Land: Covering Religion in Israel and Palestine

Indrani BasuJihii JollyKali KotoskiSaman MalikLisa MalykhinaTeboho (Poppie) MphuthingEvan Simko-BednarskiHarry Stevens

TheLandPromo“The Land” is an online platform showcasing the print and multimedia works of the Covering Religion class of 2014. As part of the seminar, the class covered a variety of religious communities in New York, and then traveled to Israel and Palestine for an 8-day reporting trip. Our deadline stories and features (yet to be published) integrate print with multimedia elements, including photographs, audio and video stories.


In line with current media trends, we chose an image driven design for our main online platform, supplemented by a social media presence on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (embedded on our website). In addition to driving traffic to our site, our concentrated social media effort attracted the attention of local journalists and contacts, bolstering our reporting efforts in the Holy land. An Al-Jazeera reporter based in Palestine reached out to us over Twitter, and several students were able to coordinate a meeting and tour Ramallah, an outing not originally on the itinerary.


While traveling abroad, the editorial and web teams had nightly deadlines to publish Daily Dispatches and Photos of the Day. We operated on a tight schedule with a collaborative editorial vibe you’d see in any newsroom. But instead of meeting in a conference room, our discussions took place in the back of the tour bus, in cafes in Nazareth and in the old city courtyard in Jerusalem.


We believe our approach to building the site was especially innovative because we designed it to be a real-time portfolio of sorts, to ensure that despite the time restraints we we reporting under, our viewers could enjoy the content (which dealt with dense, historically significant contexts) at an appropriate and enjoyable pace. Thus, we aimed to combine on-the-ground reporting and time-sensitive journalism with the slow, visually immersive design of a photographer’s portfolio.


Innovation Showcase

Innovation Showcase 2014 / Dispatch


Dispatch: Secure, Intuitive Mobile Communication and Instant Publishing

Students: Kanak Biscuitwala / Stanford CS, Willem Bult / Stanford CS, Mathias Lécuyer / Columbia CS, T.J. Purtell / Stanford CS, Madeline Ross / Columbia Journalism

Advisers: Augustin Chaintreau / Columbia CS, Chris Haseman / Tumblr, Monica Lam / Stanford CS, Susan McGregor / Columbia Journalism


Journalists, both citizen and professional, have an abundance of options when it comes to digital communication and publishing. Companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter have made it easier than ever to communicate regardless of the size of the audience. However, with this convenience come significant risks. Even in the United States, cloud service providers may be required to divulge communication records without consent from the senders or recipients; traditional journalist-source protection does not apply. Furthermore, as recent events have demonstrated, governments have been more than willing to fully block access to one or more of these services, or to the entire Internet, in order to censor citizens.
Fundamentally, developing and releasing technically sound platforms as alternatives to traditional cloud-based services is insufficient to guarantee adoption of those platforms. Any candidate platform also needs to be intuitive enough to be usable as the communication and publishing platform of choice for a reporter even when the added internal technology is unnecessary. Then, when sensitive situations arise, there is no added overhead or risk in continuing to use the same platform. Providing an application that is both intuitive from a usability standpoint and robust from a technical standpoint is the high-level goal of the Dispatch project.
Dispatch is a collaborative effort between computer scientists and journalists at Stanford University, Columbia University, and Tumblr to build a highly usable mobile platform that is also privacy-preserving and disconnection-resilient. Dispatch supports end-to-end encryption based on pseudonyms with a novel, painless key exchange approach called Identity-Based Cryptography. Additionally, Dispatch provides instant collaborative publishing to popular platforms like Tumblr. To enable disconnection tolerance, Dispatch introduces a new protocol called sneakernet. As the name suggests, the Dispatch sneakernet allows users to transmit encrypted messages person-to-person, using Bluetooth as the communication channel.
The Dispatch team conducted an experiment with an initial version of the application during the 2012 United States Election Day in New York. All captured content was automatically published to a shared Tumblr blog, producing a crowdsourced collection of high-quality micro-posts and images. Since then, prototype versions of the application have been developed and released on the iOS App Store and Google Play for Android. Dispatch is a recipient of a Magic Grant from the Brown Institute for Media Innovation.



Innovation Showcase

Innovation Showcase 2014 / QUEER


QUEER - The Gender and Sexuality of a New Generation

Ainara Tiefenthäler

QUEERPromo“QUEER” explores the gender identities and sexualities of radically liberal Millennials. The video is both disruptive in content and form. Instead of following a linear storyline, “QUEER” creates a space for its characters to question traditional concepts of gender and sexuality, and provides a thriving ground for its viewers to sow new ideas. The short doc uses animation instead of b-roll and breaks one of journalism’s most sacred rules: it includes the journalist’s personal voice and experience.



Innovation Showcase

Innovation Showcase 2014 / A Folk Way


A Folk Way

Renny GrinshpanSean Ryon


“A Folk Way” looks at the conventional NYC cultural topic of folk music from a modern perspective. The folk music of 1960s Greenwich Village is considered lost – and folk music itself no longer has a fixed definition. Most people today understand it simply as music played with acoustic instruments.


Our video redefines folk music as a diverse form of music – and the form of folk popular in the 1960s – as alive and flourishing in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Our video gives the music’s talented practitioners their first major platform for extending their music to a wider audience.



Innovation Showcase

Innovation Showcase 2014 / Conversations in Journalism


Conversations in Journalism


CIJPromoColumbia University Graduate School of Journalism’s first ever student-led conference Conversations in Journalism 2014 took place on Saturday April 5, 2014 in New York City. The event was a day of women-led discussions on the craft, technology, and prospects of journalism.

Conversations in Journalism 2014, presented by Columbia Journalism School Women in Media, provided a unique opportunity for journalism students, alumni, and professionals to hear from leaders and innovators with a wide range of experience and engage in discussions on the pressing topics facing the industry today. The conference highlighted female professionals who have put theory into practice to achieve continued success throughout their careers. They shared their professional and personal journeys with conference attendees, provided a diversity of thoughts and opinions on how to be an effective leader and take action to realize one’s career and personal goals.

Networking opportunities at the conference allowed participants to build relationships that can lead to the sharing of the best practices in today’s new media climate. By engaging in active discussion and hearing from industry experts on topics ranging from diversity and discrimination, to data, disruption and innovation, conference attendees had the opportunity to reflect on their own ambitions and plot their own futures.




Past Events

High-Level Lessons on Digital Security for Journalists


For twenty-first century journalists, maintaining the privacy, security and authenticity of their digital communications with sources is both essential and complex. Though many of the tools that enhance security and privacy are well-known by name – GPG for encrypted email, Adium and Pidgin for encrypted chat, Tor for anonymous web browsing – knowing how and when to uses these applications remains an ongoing challenge. To help address these issues, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism organized an intensive educational workshop around digital security practices in late November. Over the course of the weekend, two dozen journalists, journalism students and researchers worked with digital security trainers, computer scientists and legal experts to explore and address the unique legal and technical understandings that journalists need in order to preserve their work and communicate safely with their sources in a digital world. Though the lessons of the weekend were many, below are a few of the top takeaways from the weekend.

Encrypt Everything
Encrypting all of your data and communications won’t happen overnight, but there is good reason to make it a habit. First and foremost: practice makes perfect. If you use encrypted chat clients all the time, it will be simple – and just as fast – to use with one with a source should the need arise. Second, encryption offers strong protection for the contents of your files, emails and chat sessions. If you encrypt your computer and your phone, you can feel confident that even if something happens to your devices, your data will be extremely difficult for others to access. Likewise, while encryption won’t hide who you’re communicating with over email, it will obscure what was said. Finally, using encryption normalizes it for you, your colleagues, and the industry as a whole. If journalists in general communicate securely, it can provide reassurance to sources that you can better protect them, as well as make it difficult for even government actors to gain access to your information without your knowledge.

Your Devices Are Always Communicating
Most of us like the fact that our laptops discover and connect to wireless internet access points automatically, especially at places like our homes and offices. But the information that our computers send out into the world isn’t limited to the webpages we request or files we download. When your wifi is on, your computer is constantly sending out beacon signals in order to locate wireless access points. Part of that beacon is the so-called “mac address” of your computer, as well as your “remembered” networks. On an unencrypted wifi network, this could be used to connect your physical computer to your web activity, or even to deduce places you’ve recently visited. Be mindful of this when naming a home wireless network, and consider clearing your list of “preferred networks” when you travel. Smartphones with wifi on will behave similarly, so leave the wifi off to protect your information (and your battery life!) when out and about.

Digital Security is Physical, Too
Digital security – both for your data and your communications – isn’t all digital. Keep physical track of your devices at all times; the same few minutes you need to order coffee is all that’s needed to duplicate an unencrypted computer or install malware via USB. Likewise, keep in mind that there are instances when offline communication methods are inherently more secure than digital means. Postal mail, for example, is more difficult to search than email, and has much stronger legal protections.

Diversity Matters
The convenience and efficiency of all-in-one service providers is hard to beat. At the same time, conducting all of your communications in one place also means that anyone who gains access to that service will be able to quickly triangulate information about your sources and stories. Using a variety of communication platforms reduces this risk, and also gives you at-hand alternatives should one of them become unavailable. By using different applications for chat, email, internet phone calls and the like, you make it much more difficult for anyone to create a comprehensive picture of your communications. Perhaps as importantly, trying out and offering feedback on less common tools also gives you the opportunity to provide feedback to their creators, thereby improving the usability – and viability – of alternatives to big-name applications services.

While the above is only a cursory look at principles of digital security, we encourage anyone looking for additional information or specific recommendations to check out resources like Security In A Box  or Encryption Works.  And also keep an eye out for the Tow Center’s comprehensive white paper on digital security and privacy for journalism, which will be published in the coming months.

Susan McGregor is the Assistant Director of the Tow Center.