Mobile Security Survival Guide Helps Journalists Understand Wireless Risks

    by Melissa Ulbricht
    May 1, 2012

    i-ac442656ba991078820d499cef34ea54-PhoneLockDown.jpgThe Mobile Security Survival Guide for Journalists from SaferMobile helps reporters better understand the risks inherent in the use of mobile technology. The guide covers both local journalists and those on assignment in another country.

    As someone working with sensitive information, mobile communications are inherently insecure and expose journalists working in sensitive environments to risks that aren’t easy to detect or overcome. This guide is designed to help navigate these challenges. (It should be noted that this guide does not guarantee safety. Rather, it’s a foundational resource to understand and minimize the risks of mobile communication in the field.)

    The Mobile Security Survival Guide is written with the workflow of a journalist in mind.


    Here’s a sampling of what the guide offers:

    1. Mobile Network Awareness

    What does your mobile use say about you?

    Did you know? Activity on your phone creates a data trail that is logged on the mobile network, from placing or receiving a call, to sending a message, browsing the web, or just being connected and ready to receive communication. Identifying information logged on the network about you and the people you contact include your IMEI number (the unique handset identifier), the IMSI (the unique SIM card identifier), the time and duration of voice calls, SMS, and the photos or video you take while reporting.


    Tip: Have an alternative in case you’re unable to access one or more services. Carry SIM cards for other mobile network operators, and if possible, carry more than one phone. In some cases, only an out-of-country operator may have roaming service. Have a backup plan agreed upon in advance with sources and colleagues if you suspect that your specific line or the entire mobile service may be disrupted.

    2. Preparing for Assignment

    Assess your digital risks and prepare your phone.

    You have been given your assignment. You may be traveling to cover a story, or you may reside in a given country. Either way, when it comes to your mobile communications, you should take some precautions and plan ahead. Here are sample tips on practicing on your phone.

    Tip: Know your phone. It may sound obvious, but be sure to know how to work your phone. For example, become familiar with how your camera works and how to control its options. The flash of your camera or the sound when you click Capture may draw unwanted attention to you. Take the time to pre-set functions to avoid getting noticed by others.

    Practice on your mobile keypad. Learn how to operate your phone without looking at it. You may need to know how to type a text message (SMS) without looking at your mobile keypad or perhaps while it’s hidden in your pocket. Plan your shortcuts in advance, and be able to access needed applications without looking at the phone, too.

    3. Reporting/In the Field

    Have a plan of action ready when you’re talking to sources and conducting interviews; checking in with your newsroom; or using your phone in emergency situations.

    Tip: Use codes for SMS if needed. If necessary, use prearranged codes to communicate sensitive information to your contacts. Change your codes regularly, and make sure your system incorporates a way to let others know when you think the code may have been broken. To practice, try the code-making exercise in the SaferMobile training guide. Avoid words that could be considered “high profile” or inflammatory if you suspect keyword filtering of SMS is taking place. However, remember that information about the recipient of text messages (i.e., that person’s number and other information) is still logged by the network operator. Take care not to put any sensitive sources at risk with your communications.

    4. Filing the Story

    How do you safely send updates, news bursts, or multimedia content from the field?

    Tip: Disable MMS if not needed. Unless you really need MMS functionality on your phone, check the settings to see if it can be disabled. MMS, like SMS, can be intercepted and viewed by the network operator. Delivery rates for MMS tend to be lower as well, making this a more unreliable form of communications as well as a more insecure one. MMS can be an attack vector in another way: There have been cases where it has been used to sneak mobile viruses and malicious mobile software into unsuspecting phones.

    5. Social Media

    Make safer use of social media to follow news, connect with sources, share breaking stories, and promote your work.

    Tip: Set a strong password and keep it safe. Keep your account details safe. Check out this guide from SaferMobile for more on setting a strong password.

    While a strong password won’t always protect you, it adds an important extra layer of security. Despite the risks involved, Twitter and other social media platforms are very powerful tools that can help report news from the field, especially when events are unfolding quickly, or you have limited options or decreased capacity and staff.

    Tip: Avoid older browsers and browse securely. Your phone’s web browser needs to support HTTPS. Avoid older browsers, particularly Opera Mini Basic 3 and below. All your communication with Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter should display a lock icon to indicate secure mobile browsing, and a web address starting with https:// rather than http://.

    Check out the complete Mobile Security Survival Guide here.

    Tagged: journalism journalists mms mobile media toolkit mobile phone mobile security password reporter safer media safermobile SMS social media survival guide

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