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Digital dark arts: How to secure your data and boost your sleuthing skills

By Carlie Procell

Mike Tigas, a news applications developer at ProPublica, and Nicole Hensley, a reporter at the New York Daily News, addressed some cybersecurity issues journalists face and offered tips and tricks for working around them.

“As journalists we have to communicate with sources,” Tigas said during the “Digital dark arts” panel. “So we’re in a position where we use technology in a different way. We want to protect our sources.”

Tigas dubbed his half of the session “Defense against the dark arts” and went on to discuss how easily journalists’ data can be compromised.

There two types of data, as well as metadata, that journalist should try to protect:

  • Data at rest – What’s sitting on your desktop or in your email archive

  • Data in motion – Any kind of data that’s transferred across networks

  • Metadata – Data that describes other data

Tigas then explained the resources people use to find information about journalists and other targets, such as:

  • The “whois” terminal command. Type this command and then a URL name into the terminal and you can find a multitude of information about whoever owns that domain.

  • – A website where you can find vehicle purchase records for any car by searching the owner’s name or VIN.

Journalists can use several tools to better safeguard their data, such as:

  • Reducing your metadata footprint by searching yourself in “people finder” sites and opting out of your data showing up.
  • Using passwords that consist of random phrases rather than an intricate string of characters.
  • Enabling two-factor login on sites whenever possible.
  • Making sure your files are securely deleted.
  • Enabling both file and full disk encryption.
  • Using encrypted communications like PGP or Signal to talk to sources.

Hensley spoke about her experience as a breaking news reporter and explained how she uses several tricks to track people down from her desk.

  • Create a Twitter list for each story with 10 to 15 people who are covering or somehow related to the story.
  • Google takes around 30 minutes to refresh its search results. That means you should act fast when searching for a person whose identity is about to be shaped by a story.
  • When you find one relevant social media profile, you can find more using tools like
  • A.B.S., or Always Be Screenshotting. Because people will change information online.
  • When someone passes away, search “RIP [their name]” on social media to find friends and family.
  • And her favorite party trick – search “reporter DM me” on Twitter to find a multitude of tweets from reporters saying: “Hi, I’m a reporter with [agency] writing about [story]. Can you DM me? Thanks.” It helps to get a picture of what other news agencies are starting to cover before their stories become public.


Carlie Procell is a sophomore journalism major at the University of Missouri with an emphasis in design and a minor in computer science.

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