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Data security in newsrooms is a massive unknown – the worst thing we can do is ignore it

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There are two types of newsroom. Those that have lost data, and those that will.

Last week I was at Eurovision’s news conference – NewsXchange. It’s a fun and thoughtful annual gathering of leaders from (mostly) public service broadcast newsrooms across (mostly) europe.

I produced a session about two currents threats to journalism as I see it. The first is that journalism is increasingly put into the same category as terrorism when it comes to government investigations. This has massive implications for protection of journalists’ sources. If we are unable to keep a secret, because terrorism legislation forces us to reveal it when asked by authorities, how can we expect a whistleblower to trust us with information which is absolutely in the public interest?

The second threat is that large media organisations are increasingly seen as a prestige target by hackers. One example: TV5 was taken off the air for around 18 hours earlier this year.

At the start of the session I asked the audience a set of questions about their news organisation and security of their data. They voted using personal push-button handsets. I want to share the results here as we didn’t have enough time in the session to analyse them in detail.

If you are relatively new to data security threats, they might shock you. Sadly, for the most part myself and the experts I had with me on the panel found some of the results all too predictable.

I should stress this is not a statistically accurate survey, it is simply meant to be an indication of the thoughts of the people in the room at the time.

Using a VPN

VPN use: An easy one to start with, and I’m pleasantly surprised that over a third of people use a secure connection on their own computer.  However the number of people effectively saying ‘I know I should, but I don’t’ is where I expected it to be.

Data safety in the field

Data safety away from base: I asked here specifically about how reporters treated any data-carrying equipment once it was out of the office. How well do they stick to the IT rules?

I was particularly interested in the results of option two, as it’s an indicator of the extent to which corporate IT policies get in the way of newsgathering workflows. In many cases side-stepping the rules temporarily in order to speed the story back to base is acceptable as long as you’ve assessed the risks well enough.

I wasn’t prepared for a full two-thirds of the voters either not knowing when their reporters might be taking risks with important data, or not knowing what procedures were even in place!

Mobile phone data safety

Mobiles: I’ve seen this on many occasions.  A reporter can’t get their work phone to do what they need it to, so they use their own phone, and half the respondents do not think this is an issue! The danger here is that a personal mobile phone is far more likely to be a ‘leaky’ data device. For a start, what happens if it gets lost or stolen with contact details of anonymous sources on it?

Newsroom data breach expectations

To what extent are you expecting a data breach: I am glad to see that most people are realists. It is extremely hard to prevent attacks, what matters is how you prepare for one and what you do afterwards. (The data theft from UK phone company Talk Talk had occurred just a week before. It was the third such attack and the company head didn’t even know if the data was encrypted or not! Astonishing.)

Effectiveness of protection systems

How effective do you think your corporate systems are: At least 20 percent of the respondents have a false sense of security, half need to ask better questions of their IT chiefs. Only a third of those who pushed a button are ready to properly plan for the attacks that will certainly come.


A quick note to the results: I’m displaying the questions in the order they were asked, but I don’t know the total number of votes that were counted, and of the 180 or so people in the room, not all would have voted and not all might have voted for all the questions.

I always welcome insightful comments. If you know something which would add to our understanding of these results, please let everyone know.




Written by Robert

3 November, 2015 at 12:29 am

A quick test post – cheerfully ignore this :)

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I’m playing with WordPress features with some Qatar University students at the Thomson Reuters Foundation this week.

Here’s one of the blog posts from Nada, who writes about feminism.

Esraa’s has been shopping.

Hamda wants to see Instagram in the new Blackberry, and soon!

2011-11-02 Qatar

From William Saito / Flickr

Written by Robert

20 June, 2013 at 9:47 am

Posted in training

Tagged with ,

I used to recommend Facebook to people worried about online privacy. I don’t do that anymore.

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(maybe I don't want you to know)

Well maybe I don't want you to know

Privacy just got too simplistic

I’m fully invested in social networks. I love knowing what my friends are doing – whether across timezones or across London, I feel like I’m still with my friends even if I’m not physically with them.

I’m also a lot more social in real life than I used to be, and although this maybe just my current stage of life, it wouldn’t surprise me if online connections did foster those in the real-world.

However, I have many friends and colleagues however who are cautious about putting parts of their lives online. No problem, I would say. Facebook is the best for that: its privacy settings are so granular. You can choose exactly what you do want to share, and what you don’t, and with whom.

At least, that’s what I used to say. Facebook has made a really significant privacy settings change, and unlike all the others up till now which have increased and made my privacy options more flexible, this one is a definite downgrade.

Facebook used to have four main type of ownership or tag:

  • Your uploaded photos
  • Your name tag in a post
  • Your name tag in a photo
  • Your name tag in a place

This meant that I could put default restrictions who saw which types of tag.

I don’t mind some people seeing my own pictures, but I may not want them seeing other people’s pictures of me. There are people who can tag me in posts, but I don’t let most people tag me in a place, or see where I am. With different types of tag, I could decide some blanket rules, then set and forget.

I’m notorious at the BBC’s College of Journalism for demonstrating my many levels of privacy. By mixing and matching the above combinations, I have seven (!) different Facebook privacy settings. (Claire Wardle and Sue Llewellyn always find this most amusing.)

As the joke goes, I’m not paranoid; they ARE out to get me!

But Facebook have wrecked my system. There are now only two main types of tag:

  • Your uploaded photos
  • Your name tag in a post, photo or place.

This means that I can’t separate different types of post anymore. If you can see my tag, you can see everywhere it appears. No more allowing people to see photos of me, but not where I am, for instance.

The result of this is that I’m not going to share quite as much, quite as freely anymore.  All because Facebook over-simplified.

I can still make granular changes to individual posts, but only ones I’ve written, only as I make them, and only on the website. Now that’s complicated.

Your thoughts? Please comment.

Written by Robert

27 September, 2011 at 10:17 pm

Posted in social, training

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Meeting Amadou Mahtar Ba

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Amadou Mahtar Ba & Nick Kotch, originally uploaded by R Freeman.

Amadou is the first of the visiting speakers this week. He’s head of the African Media Initiative. They aim to improve media freedom, strengthen professional journalism standards and increase investment in African media.

Some of his main speaking themes:

The media are critical in shaping Africa by promoting democratic governance and economic growth.

A background into the development of – a need for Africa to tell its own stories, particularly at a time when many newspapers did not have their own websites.

The rise of mobile phones as a content creation device and a content distribution tool.

The need for journalists to act as facilitators and moderators of debate and constantly ask who their audience is and how they are best reached.

Written by Robert

31 August, 2010 at 3:57 pm

Posted in Business, journalism, training

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First visit to Nairobi

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I’m in Kenya for the first time!

I’m with a group of journalists being hosted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, at the Kenya School of Monetary Studies.

I’m hoping to add some pictures to this a bit later once I’ve got my camera hooked up and the internet speeds have got a bit faster come 5pm.

Practising taking photos

Written by Robert

30 August, 2010 at 1:52 pm

Posted in journalism, training

Do you remember why we need the media?

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In writing this I am satisfying a deep-rooted need within you

In the last few months I’ve been remembering what it’s like to be back at University.

I’ve recently written a digital journalism training syllabus for the Thomson Reuters Foundation and I’m currently helping  seasoned reporters extend their skills in social media at the BBC Academy’s College of Journalism, under the diligent eye of Claire Wardle, PhD (no less!)

Selfishly (because I’m being paid to help other people learn) I’m finding it tremendously enriching. I’m able to read and think much more deeply about where we’re all headed in this fact-rich, analysis-poor media landscape.

I was tracking down some of the academic research I was forced to do a few years ago. At the time, I hated all the theory, all I wanted to do was get out with the gear and meet people and talk to them and write a juicy story and get back and run with it.

Little has changed. Except now I care slightly more about why I’m doing it and what it all means.

So here’s a blast from my past, a theory of why people use television, by some chaps called McQuail, Blumner and Brown. They wrote this in the early 70s well before I was born, but I don’t see why it isn’t immediately applicable to today’s media.

Anyone producing content today should remind themselves why people need to consume their stuff and adapt to suit.

There are 4 ‘needs’ a person has:


Relaxation, escape, filling time, release of emotions.


Learning, advice, understanding the world.

Personal identity

Finding role models, forming personal values, understanding yourself.


Understanding and identifying with others, finding roles for ourselves, sharing common traits, and (perhaps sadly) substitution for real-life relationships.

Read that last one again. As true now, and more achievable now, than when the good gentlemen wrote it in 1972. Is it any wonder Facebook has become so popular.

Written by Robert

30 March, 2010 at 11:57 pm