06/09/2013 06:00 EDT | Updated 08/09/2013 05:12 EDT

State-snooping scandal prompts warning to journalists: protect sources better

MONTREAL - A scandal over state snooping on journalists in the United States is prompting media-watchers to consider new techniques to protect sources.

Anonymity of sources is considered sacrosanct among journalists and essential to their safety, reputation, and ability to act as public whistleblowers.

But journalists are lagging behind when it comes to protecting sources in the digital era, critics say.

"There is a general lack of awareness (among journalists) about what ubiquitous surveillance looks like," said Jonathan Stray, who teaches computational journalism at Columbia University.

Everything from the websites you visit, the calls you make, and even your phone location, are logged somewhere, Stray said. The same applies to reporters.

"That affects the type of stories (journalists) can do," he said.

In 2011, Christopher Soghoian, who works for the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote an article in the New York Times titled, "When secrets aren't safe with journalists." It urged reporters to take new steps to protect sources and information.

Two years later, he paints a rather dark picture of the situation.

The Associated Press revealed last month that the U.S. Department of Justice seized some of its phone records, as part of an investigation to identify one of its sources. A Fox News Reporter has also been investigated after publishing a 2009 article about North Korea, and quoting a source within the Obama administration.

"Nothing has really changed," Soghoian said.

Journalists on sensitive beats — like national security — are targeted more than others, he said. And those particular reporters aren't necessarily the most adept with new information-security technology, like email encryption.

"Generally it's the older journalists who've spent years building sources. It takes a while for these folks to learn about these new technologies," Soghoian said.

Few organizations and even fewer journalism schools offer training in that area.

Reporters Without Borders has begun giving workshops to journalism schools around the world.

"We're going to Columbia Journalism School for the third consecutive year because nobody else has the knowledge combination of journalism and technology," said Delphine Halgand, Reporters Without Borders' U.S. director.

"The most disconcerting (thing) is that even with scandals piling up, (journalists') habits don't change."

While these workshops can quickly teach journalists how to use tools to protect their sources, there are still extra measures they might take.

Journalists need to use the concept of threat-modeling, Stray said.

That begins with asking some questions.

"Every time I communicate with somebody, that information is recorded," said Stray. "Who has access to it? How? Is that a threat to my work?...

"You don't know what tools you need until you figure out what problems you're trying to solve."

Danny O'Brien, the Electronic Frontier Foundation's international director, echoed Stray's opinion.

"You have to teach your sources about this as well," he said.

"In the case of whistleblowers, those people aren't aware of the protection they can take."

Whistleblowers are at particular risk.

About a week ago, The New Yorker unveiled Strongbox — a secure way for people to leak confidential information to them.

Files sent through Strongbox are encrypted and only two reporters from the magazine have access to the files leaked.

The system was intentionally designed so that, even in the event of a court order, it would be almost impossible to track down a leak.

The New Yorker is one of the only media outlets using such a system for now.

"News organizations are going to have to spend some money, both to set these kinds of systems up and more importantly to train their journalists to securely handle the materials once you have them," Soghoian said.

There still is a lot of work to be done but there is hope, O'Brien says.

"It's getting slowly better, journalists realize they're targeted in this way," he said. "There are definitely protections journalists can take to protect themselves from surveillance online."

Unlike in some states in the U.S., journalists in Canada don't enjoy any special legal rights when it comes to their sources.

"A journalist … has no more legal protection to protect someone's identity than any other member of the general public," said Hugo Rodrigues, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that journalists don't have a constitutional right to protect their sources, following a case involving a National Post reporter who covered the Shawinigate scandal.

The last effort to legislate on source protection didn't make it past the House of Commons.

Former Bloc Quebecois MP Serge Menard sponsored Bill C-426, which would have amended the Canada Evidence Act and set strict conditions under which a journalist might be forced to reveal sources' identity. The 2008 prorogation of Parliament, however, killed the bill and it hasn't been reintroduced since.

Journalists need to be prepared in case electronic communication is the only way they can communicate with a source.

"They need to know how they're going to extend that offer (of confidentiality), and what the risks are with the technology," Rodrigues said.