Scientists, want to anonymously tip journalists? Here’s how

BOSTON – At a session Thusday on environmental journalism in the age of Trump, panelists found plenty to disagree about.

One example of disagreement was whether those who reject mainstream climate science should be called “deniers,” as Harvard science historian Naomi Oreskes declares, or “doubters,” following a 2015 Associated Press style decision.

But there was one thing on which the panelists agreed: the need for anonymous tipping from environmental scientists.

Since President Donald Trump’s inauguration, there have been several examples of his administration taking down information from government websites that was public under former President Barack Obama, for example on climate change and animal welfare. This has led to several news outlets and advocacy organizations to strongly promote their online portals to make it easier for people to submit anonymous tips and privately share documents.

As journalists and the public navigate through seemingly daily attacks on science and evidence, it comes at a time with increasingly sophisticated technology at their disposal, and has made user privacy more secure and leaking information more accessible than ever.

BU panel

John Rodgers with the the Union of Concerned Scientists moderates a discussion during the AAAS Conference in Boston on the challenges of science reporting since the 2016 election. From left to right: Rodgers; Joseph Romm, Senior Fellow at American Progress; Meera Subramanian, MIT Knight Science Journalism Fellow; Seth Borenstein, AP senior science writer; and Naomi Oreskes, science historian at Harvard University. Photo by Daniel Levitt.

Near the end of the panel, an independent event sponsored by Boston University and the Union of Concerned Scientists, Borenstein held up a stack of forms outlining the ways the scientist-majority audience could securely tip anonymously.

“Democracy depends on reporters getting information out of an increasingly closed-mouth and politically-charged government and into the hands of the people who pay for that government,” Borenstein said via email.

“And it’s a president who dismisses much of mainstream science and long-held environmental protection policies, so if you cover those beats it makes sense that you need to get information from informed sources inside the government who may be censored and punished if they speak up publicly.”

Journalism isn’t the only profession that’s actively seeking anonymous tips. The Union of Concerned Scientists also offers ways people can give tips while protecting their identity. However, the organization points out that it isn’t protected by the same privileges as journalists are, and it could have to turn over communication sources to the courts.

Below are the five secure ways the AP and The New York Times use to protect the anonymity of their sources.

SecureDrop – Email software that, using the Tor network, doesn’t record your IP address, the web browser you’re using, or any other information that may identify who you are.

Signal – Free phone app that works just like sending messages, but doesn’t store or have access to your data. Users can configure the settings to delete messages after a period of time.

WhatsApp – Also works just like the messenger app but, unlike Signal, can keep the phone numbers of those you’ve communicated with and the times those messages were sent.

PGP email – Pretty Good Privacy. If Tor doesn’t work, PGP allows users from anywhere in the world to send emails anonymously using reporters and editors’ PGP keys.

Postal Mail – Scared of technology? No fear. Send tips the traditional way. Just make sure you don’t include a return address.

The Guardian is also a staunch advocate of online privacy, and it offers 21 tips, tricks and shortcuts to help you stay anonymous online.


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