Finding Community and Digital Security: Reflections from an Open Technology Fund Project

Friday, January 27, 2017
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By Taryn Blanchard

In January 2016, I decided to look for funding that would allow me to attend an important in-person meeting of the Journalists in Distress (JID) network, a group of organizations (including CJFE) that collectively disperses a huge portion of the global financial support available to journalists who are being persecuted because of their work. CJFE is a small organization with limited resources, so we rely on the support of generous supporters and funding organizations to carry out our program work.

Along the way, my search morphed into a proposal for a comprehensive assessment of three component parts of the JID network’s digital security:

  1. The digital practices used in CJFE’s Journalists in Distress program, and in its role as administrator of the global JID network;
  2. The digital practices used in the assistance programs of the JID network’s member organizations; and,
  3. The digital practices that journalists in distress employ, including throughout their search for assistance.

I was fortunate enough that my proposal was well-received and accepted by Open Technology Fund (OTF), a U.S.-based organization that provides funding and other support to people who are working on Internet freedom and digital security initiatives. The OTF staff went out of their way to accommodate my proposal, directing me to the organization’s most applicable program—the Internet Freedom Fund—after I initially applied to its Rapid Response Fund.

One product of my proposal and subsequent six-month contract with OTF is a three-report series called “Journalists in Distress: Assessing the Digital Viabilities of a Global Emergency Assistance Network.” Each report assesses and examines one of three component parts (listed above) of the JID network. The executive summaries of the digital security reports on CJFE’s Journalists in Distress program and the global JID network are available, and the full report on the digital practices of at-risk journalists can be found here.

The objective of the series is three-fold. First, it provides a holistic understanding of the state of the global network’s digital practices and the potential vulnerabilities to the journalists they help. Second, it places the network and its member organizations in better positions to develop and implement stronger digital security practices, as well as protection strategies for the journalists seeking their support. Third, it provides an important case study that other human rights organizations can use to assess their own digital vulnerabilities, both internally and throughout their networks.

Today, even the act of reaching out through cyberspace for help, whether it is formally applying for assistance or informally making contact with a potential source of support, can increase the vulnerability of already at-risk individuals. The protection strategies and actions of the human rights community must be adapted to ensure that the people, organizations and networks trying to help are not contributing to the problem in their efforts to solve it.

Journalists in Distress: Securing Your Digital Life

In addition to the reports, the project also included creating an online resource that provides information, tips and sources of help for protecting yourself and others against digital vulnerabilities that state and non-state actors can exploit. Although this resource was developed primarily with journalists in distress in mind—and includes information specifically for those thinking about applying to an assistance program in the JID network for help—it benefits all Internet users who want to improve their digital security and practice safe behaviours online.

You can check out the resource at cjfe.org/digitalsecurity. Evan Leeson and the team at Catalyst Internet Inc. did wonders bringing my vision of a clean, easy-to-read and digestible resource to life.

Once it was officially launched, I had a great time trying to circulate the resource as widely as possible. I reached out to CJFE’s Digital Issues Committee members, the Canadian-based ‘Our Privacy’ coalition members, the OTF community and the JID network. I also cross-posted my introductory blog about the resource on IFEX’s website and rabble.ca.

And, of course, I also pushed the resource out on CJFE’s social media and asked others to do the same. OTF, RightsCon, OpenMedia, Rory Peck Trust, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, the Global Investigative Journalism Network and The Engine Room were all kind enough to promote it.

The Internet Freedom Community: A Snapshot

Overall, the project was a lot of work. But like all activities that motivate and challenge you, it was incredibly rewarding. I learned more about both the topic of the project—digital security in the press protection community—and project management than I ever expected.

I worried about the workload I was taking on as the project’s primary researcher and author, and anticipated the sense of isolation that often comes with independent research projects. (I am also a PhD candidate in the University of Toronto’s Anthropology Department, so I am quite familiar with feeling isolated while in the weeds of a research project.) But what I experienced instead was an introduction to a passionate, knowledgeable and welcoming community of OTF project members (past and present) who were eager and willing to offer feedback, insights and advice.

It was during this time that I learned about Localization Lab, a global community of volunteer translators who provide translation services and localization for Internet freedom tools. Through a listserv operated by OTF, I was able to easily connect with Localization Lab staff, and plans are now well underway to translate CJFE’s digital security resource. The French version is live, and Arabic, Spanish and Hungarian versions are on the way.

I was also able to meet many in the OTF community during the organization’s annual summit, which brings its current project members and other funding recipients together to share knowledge with and learn from one another. Sessions were held on every Internet freedom topic imaginable: measuring success in digital security assistance, circumvention tools, best practices on inter-disciplinary research methods and dissemination, challenges and lessons of localization, the trials and tribulations of sustainability, women and surveillance, and ally skills workshops—to name just a few.

At the summit, I spoke with activists from Pakistan, India, Vietnam and the Philippines; journalists from Azerbaijan, Turkey, Mexico and Indonesia; and technologists from all over the United States, Canada and Europe. OTF truly prioritizes building a sustainable community of hard-working, resourceful and relentless Internet freedom fighters—without whom, all Internet users the world over would be severely compromised.

Digital Security for the ‘Every Person’

So what are my final takeaways from the project? There are many interesting and important findings from the research. They are too numerous to even consider touching on them all here, but they are all contained in the reports.

But to name just a few: First, journalists in distress use mobile phones more frequently than computers to access the Internet; this means that the risks specific to the infrastructure of mobile networks must be considered carefully when searching for solutions to their digital vulnerabilities. Second, despite being a very small organization with limited resources, CJFE has creatively fashioned a number of methods for increasing the security of its Journalists in Distress program—particularly in its choices of hardware and software. And third, while staff in the global Journalists in Distress network try their best to separate their work from home life, many have to work from home or remotely in order to address journalists’ emergencies— which, unsurprisingly, do not only occur on weekdays between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m.

There are a couple more general takeaways I would like to touch on though. Even before I began this project, I knew that the Journalists in Distress network has a phenomenal amount of data about at-risk journalists: the living conditions they must endure, the types of assistance they need and ask for, who they are being persecuted by, how they are communicating with press protection organizations—the list goes on and on. The network’s member organizations and their staff spend their days learning about journalists’ alarming and urgent situations, and how best they can help (typically with insufficient resources). The power of data in this type of work cannot be understated. It provides hard and actionable facts about the state of a global and increasingly targeted profession, emerging trends and patterns about press freedom violations and the work to protect against them, as well as the ongoing needs and gaps that have yet to be (ful)filled.

Digital security can sound like a daunting or specialized topic that only experts can truly understand. This was one of my most pressing concerns as I started the project, as I have no professional background in digital security, computer science or other related field. Really, though, digital security is to a large extent about human behaviour and decisions. How motivated is the actor who is trying to gain access to you through cyberspace? How willing are you to alter your practices to make it harder to access your devices and communications? Are you regularly assessing the state of your security—both physically and digitally (if there is even such a divide today)? How much time, energy and initiative do you have to find the best solutions to your particular security needs?

None of these questions require uniquely technological or specialized knowledge; they just require an interested Internet user who can do some basic web research. And with the number of tools, guides and resources out there to help Internet users protect themselves today, digital security has never been more attainable.

It is important to remember that digital security isn’t something you ‘attain’; it’s something you practice and exercise. Just like you exercise your rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. And for those people whose passion and drive it is to protect those rights and the people being persecuted for them, there is a huge number of likeminded individuals and groups out there ready to help you, welcome you into their ranks, and support you—through funding, knowledge-sharing or community-building. All you have to do is decide to look for them.


Taryn Blanchard is CJFE's Programs Coordinator.

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