Journalist Guide

Note

SecureDrop wants your feedback! Confused by something in our documentation? Let us know via an issue on GitHub or the community forum.

This guide presents an overview of the SecureDrop system for a journalist. It covers the core functions necessary to start working with the platform: logging in securely, viewing documents, editing documents, and interacting with sources.

Updating Your Workstation

You should keep your SecureDrop workstations updated with:

  • Tails updates
  • SecureDrop workstation updates

You should apply Tails updates to your Tails drive as they are released, as they often contain critical security fixes. The Journalist Workstation Tails drive, once booted and connected to Tor, will alert you if upgrades are available. For most Tails upgrades, you can simply follow the steps in the Tails Upgrader that appears on screen to update your Tails drive. However, sometimes Tails upgrades are “manual” which means that you should follow the instructions in Tails Upgrade Documentation to upgrade the drives. Talk to your SecureDrop administrator if you have trouble.

For SecureDrop workstation updates, beginning with SecureDrop 0.7.0, your workstation will automatically check for updates on boot. An update window will pop up when updates are needed, and you should simply follow the prompts in the updater to perform the update.

Note

Note that you will need to have a Tails Administrator password configured to complete the update. If you forget to do so, you will need to reboot to enable it.

Creating a GPG Key

We recommend creating a personal GPG key for encrypting files before moving them from the Secure Viewing Station to your everyday workstation. A GPG key has two parts: a public key and a private key. The private key, used for decryption, stays on your everyday workstation. The public key, used for encryption, is copied to the Secure Viewing Station.

If you do not yet have a GPG key, follow the instructions for your operating system to set one up:

Connecting to the Journalist Interface

Journalists viewing documents on SecureDrop must connect to the Journalist Interface using the Tails operating system on a USB drive. As part of your on-boarding, your admin should have provided you with a Tails drive configured for this purpose, known as the Journalist Workstation USB drive.

If you do not have a USB drive clearly identified as the Journalist Workstation, ask your administrator for assistance before continuing.

Note

The Tails OS makes using SecureDrop very different from other computing experiences. The added layers of security mean extra steps each time you want to login. With practice, you will become increasingly comfortable with the process.

To use the Journalist Interface, you will visit a Tor hidden service address in the Tor Browser. By design, this hidden service address is only accessible from your Journalist Workstation; it will not work in Tor Browser on another computer, unless explicitly configured with an access token.

To visit the Journalist Interface, click the Journalist Interface icon on the desktop. This will open Tor Browser to an “.onion” address. Log in with your username, passphrase, and two-factor authentication token, as shown in the first screenshot below. (If you have been provided with a YubiKey, see Using YubiKey with the Journalist Interface for detailed setup and usage information.)

Journalist Interface Login

Reset Passphrase or Two-factor Authentication Token

If necessary, journalists may reset their user passphrase or two-factor authentication token in their user profile. To navigate to your user profile, log in to the Journalist Interface and click on the link in the upper right of the screen where it says Logged on as <your user name>.

If you have lost or forgotten your passphrase or two-factor authentication device, you will need to contact your SecureDrop admin for assistance.

Journalist account profile

Daily Journalist Alerts About Submissions

When a SecureDrop has little activity and receives only a few submissions every other week, checking the Journalist Interface daily only to find there is nothing is a burden. It is more convenient for journalists to be notified daily via encrypted email about whether or not there has been submission activity in the past 24 hours.

If the email shows submissions were received, the journalist can connect to the Journalist Interface to get them.

This is an optional feature that must be activated by the administrator. In the simplest case a journalist provides their email and GPG public key to the admin. If a team of journalist wants to receive these daily alerts, they should share a GPG key and ask the admin to setup a mail alias (SecureDrop does not provide that service) so they all receive the alerts and are able to decrypt them.

Interacting With Sources

If any sources have uploaded documents or sent messages, they will be listed on the homepage by codename.

Journalist Interface

Note

Codenames that journalists see are different than the codenames visible to sources.

Click on a codename to see the dedicated page for that source. You will see all of the messages that they have written and documents that they have uploaded. If the name of a source is difficult to say or remember, you can rename a source using the Change codename button next to their current codename.

Cycle source codename

Tip

You can also Star interesting or promising sources to easily return to them later. All starred sources will be bumped to the top of the list of sources.

If you want to reply to the source, write your message in the text field and click Submit.

Sent reply

Once your reply has been successfully submitted, you will be returned to the source page and see a message confirming that the reply was stored. The source will see your reply the next time they log in with their unique codename.

To minimize the impact of a source codename being compromised, the Source Interface encourages the source to delete the reply after reading it. Once a source has read your reply and deleted it from their inbox, a checkmark will appear next to the reply in the interface.

Note

Prior to SecureDrop 0.9.0, replies when deleted from the source inbox would also disappear from the journalist inbox. As such, if there are older conversations, there may be discontinuities in the conversation.

You may also delete replies if you change your mind after sending them.

Documents and messages are encrypted to the SecureDrop installation’s Submission Public Key. In order to read the messages or look at the documents you will need to transfer them to the Secure Viewing Station, which holds the Submission Private Key. To recall the conversation history between your organization and sources, you can also download replies and transfer them to the Secure Viewing Station for decryption.

Flag for Reply

If the server experiences a large number of new sources signing up at once and is overloaded with submissions, you will need to flag sources for reply before you can communicate with them. Click the Flag this source for reply button.

Flag for reply button

After clicking the Flag this source for reply button, you will see this confirmation page. Click through to get back to the page that displays that source’s documents and replies.

Flag for reply notification

You will not be able to reply until after the source logs in again and sees that you would like to talk to them. So you may have to sit and wait. After the source sees that you’d like to reply, a GPG key pair will automatically be generated and you can log back in and send a reply.

Moving Documents to the Secure Viewing Station

Step 1: Download the encrypted submission

Documents and messages sent by sources can only be decrypted and viewed on the Secure Viewing Station. After clicking on an individual source, you will see the page below with any documents or messages the source has sent you. Documents always end with -doc.gz.gpg, while messages always end with -msg.gpg.

Click on a document or message name to save it, or select a number of documents and save them all at once by clicking Download Selected.

Load external content

A dialog box with two choices will appear, Cancel and Save file:

Download selected

Click Save file. In the save dialog, select one of the two folders highlighted in red in the screenshot below:

Download to sandbox folder

The difference between these two folders is as follows:

  • Tor Browser. Downloads saved to this folder will be stored in memory, which means that they will only be available for the duration of your current Tails session. In the screenshot, this is the currently selected folder. The full path to this folder is /home/amnesia/Tor Browser.
  • Tor Browser (persistent): Note that the name may be abbreviated, as shown in the screenshot; you can view the full name by hovering the mouse over the shortcut. Downloads saved to this folder will be stored on your Tails USB drive in the special persistent volume that is only available if you have unlocked it on the Tails welcome screen. The full path to this folder is /home/amnesia/Persistent/Tor Browser.

Unless you have a reason to store encrypted submissions on the Journalist Workstation, we recommend using the non-persistent “Tor Browser” folder. In the recommended process, you will now move the submission to the Secure Viewing Station, and there is no need to leave a persistent copy behind.

Important

Attempting to download files to any other folder will fail. Tails only permits Tor Browser to access these two folders, so that even if your browser is compromised by malware, attackers cannot easily gain access to other data stored on the same computer.

See the Tails guide to Browsing the web with Tor Browser for more information.

Step 2: Copy the encrypted submission to the Transfer Device

Once downloaded to either folder, move the document to the designated USB stick you intend to use to transfer the documents from your Journalist Workstation to the Secure Viewing Station. This storage device is known as your Transfer Device.

You can right-click the file and select Copy to, then select the Transfer Device, as shown in the screenshots below.

Copy to transfer device 1

Copy to transfer device 2

This will leave a redundant copy behind in the Tor Browser folder. If you have downloaded the file to the non-persistent “Tor Browser” folder (as recommended), the redundant copy will disappear when the computer is shut down or rebooted.

“Eject” the Transfer Device by clicking the eject icon next to its name in the file manager. Wait for this operation to complete (the eject icon will disappear), then unplug the Transfer Device. “Ejecting” the drive in this manner ensures that all write operations are completed before you physically unplug it.

Step 3: Decrypt and view the submission on the Secure Viewing Station

Next, boot up the Secure Viewing Station using Tails and enter the passphrase for the Secure Viewing Station persistent volume. Once you have logged in, plug in the Transfer Device.

Note

The Secure Viewing Station and Journalist Workstation are on separate Tails USB drives.

Click on the Home icon on your desktop, then on the Transfer Device. Copy the file into your Persistent folder. You can do so by opening a new window with the Persistent folder and dragging the file from one window to another. A faster method is to drag the file to the Persistent shortcut, as in the screenshot below:

Copy files to persistent

Important

Always copy submissions to the Persistent folder before decrypting them. Otherwise you might accidentally decrypt them on the USB stick, and they could be recoverable in the future.

After successfully copying them to the Secure Viewing Station, erase the files from your Transfer Device. Ensure you’re viewing the Transfer Device folder, then right click on the files that need removal and click “Wipe” to securely delete the files from your device:

Wiping documents

To decrypt and view documents or messages, return to your Persistent folder. All key actions are initiated by double-clicking:

  • Double-clicking archives in ZIP or gzip format will open the “File Roller” application, which allows you to extract the contents.
  • Double-clicking files that end in .gpg will attempt to decrypt the contents to the same directory. If you have configured a passphrase for your Submission Key, you will be prompted for it.
  • Double-clicking decrypted messages or documents will attempt to open them in a default application suitable for the file type.

If the default application does not work, you can right-click on the document and choose Open with Other Application… to try opening the document with LibreOffice Writer, Document Viewer, or another application. You might also need to right-click on a file and choose Rename… to rename a document with an incorrect or missing file extension.

Tip

Always extract gzip archives with the “File Roller” application, which is the default when double-clicking the archive. Other methods may not preserve the filename contained in the archive.

For example, an archive called 1-artful_elevation-doc.gz might contain a file secrets.docx, but if you extract the contents by right-clicking the archive and selecting Extract here, the extracted file will be called 1-artful_elevation-doc instead of secrets.docx. This may result in problems when attempting to open the file due to the loss of its file extension.

When you double-click an archive to open it, you should see it in the “File Roller” application. It looks like this:

Opened archive

Click the Extract button to unpack the archive. Navigate to the folder containing the encrypted document message or document (ends with .gpg) and double-click it to decrypt it. The decrypted file it will have the same filename, but without .gpg at the end.

Decrypted documents

You can now double-click on the decrypted file to open it in its default application.

Opened document

Working with Documents

This section describes how to organize submissions, handle unusual file formats, safely research submissions, remove metadata, and mitigate risks from submitted malware.

Tip

This is only a very limited introduction. Freedom of the Press Foundation publishes and maintains digital security guides for journalists, many of which relate to these topics, and offers digital security training for news organization staff.

Organizing submissions

Whenever you download submissions using one of the Download buttons in the Journalist Interface, they will be organized as a ZIP archive with a built-in folder structure, which you can use as a template for organizing submissions on the Secure Viewing Station.

Submissions downloaded in this manner from the list of all sources will contain a structure like the following:

all
├── recessive accreditation
│   ├── 1_2019-07-07
│   │   └── 1-recessive_accreditation-msg.gpg
│   └── 2_2019-07-07
│       └── 2-recessive_accreditation-msg.gpg
└── surviving authentication
    ├── 1_2019-07-07
    │   └── 1-surviving_authentication-doc.gz.gpg
    └── 2_2019-07-07
        └── 2-surviving_authentication-msg.gpg

Submissions downloaded in this manner from the screen for an individual source will contain a similar structure, but without the parent folder all.

A folder like 1_2019-07-07 in the example above will always contain exactly one message or document. The numbers in the folder name (1, 2, etc.) correspond to the numbering in the Journalist Interface. The dates (2019-07-07 in the example above) are the day (in year/month/day format) of the last activity related to this source, at the time the archive was downloaded.

If you download messages or documents one at a time in the Journalist Interface, they will not be contained in a ZIP file at all. Instead, you will be dealing with individual files like 1-surviving_authentication-doc.gz.gpg, without a folder structure.

Handling File Formats

SecureDrop accepts submissions of any file type. Tails comes with pre-installed applications for securely working with documents, including an office suite, graphics tools, desktop publishing tools, audio tools, and printing and scanning tools.

For more information, visit the Tails guide to working with sensitive documents.

Pre-Encrypted Submissions

SecureDrop sources can optionally encrypt prior to submitting to SecureDrop. This means that once you decrypt the document as you usually do by double clicking the document in the file manager, there will be another layer of encryption.

Most often, the file will be encrypted to the SecureDrop key. If the file is encrypted to your SecureDrop key, you should be able to double click the file as usual once more in the SVS and it should decrypt.

However, it’s also possible the file is encrypted to another key, potentially your personal key. If this occurs, you will get an error message in Tails that reads “Decryption failed. You probably do not have the decryption key”. To determine which key was used, if you are comfortable at the command line, you can open the Terminal, navigate to the file, and use:

gpg --decrypt NAME_OF_FILE

replacing NAME_OF_FILE with the name of the file you wish to decrypt. This command will tell you what key was used to encrypt the file. If you are not comfortable at the command line, contact your SecureDrop admin or Freedom of the Press Foundation for assistance.

Warning

Do not transfer source material off the Secure Viewing Station for decryption. Instead, transfer cryptographic keys to the SVS device for decryption and metadata removal.

Researching Submissions

Journalists should take care to research submissions using the Tor Browser, ideally in a new Tails session on your Journalist Workstation for highly sensitive submissions.

Removing Metadata

Tip

For detailed information about removing metadata from documents, check out this in-depth guide to removing metadata.

Tails comes with the Metadata Anonymisation Toolkit (MAT) that is used to help strip metadata from a variety of types of files, including png, jpg, OpenOffice/LibreOffice documents, Microsoft Office documents, pdf, tar, tar.bz2, tar.gz, zip, mp3, mp2, mp1, mpa, ogg, and flac. You can open MAT by clicking ApplicationsSystem ToolsMAT.

We recommend always doing as much work as possible inside of Tails before copying documents back to your Journalist Workstation. This includes stripping metadata with MAT.

Warning

MAT is no longer actively maintained and will not strip all metadata, even when the output claims the document is clean. Some metadata are likely to persist: you must never assume MAT has removed all metadata.

When you no longer need documents, you can right-click on them and choose Wipe to delete them.

Wiping documents

Risks From Malware

As long as you are using the latest version of Tails, you should be able to open submitted documents with a low risk of malicious files compromising the Secure Viewing Station. However, even if a compromise does occur, Tails is designed so that the next time you reboot, the malware will be gone.

It is crucial, however, that you have a strategy for dealing with malware before you move documents off the Secure Viewing Station in electronic form. SecureDrop does not scan for or automatically remove malware. If you copy an original file you received via SecureDrop to your everyday workstation, and that file contains malware, you may still end up running the malware on your everyday workstation.

For this reason, we recommend taking additional precautions. Printing a file is often safer than exchanging it electronically, and it has the additional benefits of removing embedded metadata (except for printer codes, watermarks, or similar identifiers that may not be visible to the naked eye).

Alternatively, you can use the tools provided within Tails to examine documents, or convert files from one format to another (e.g., export a Word document as PDF). Fully mitigating the risks of malware is beyond the scope of this documentation.

Never scan QR codes from the Secure Viewing Station using a network connected device. These QR codes can contain links that your connected device will automatically visit. In general, you should take care when opening any links provided in a SecureDrop submission, as this can leak information to third parties. If you are unsure if a link is safe to click, you should consult your digital security staff or Freedom of the Press Foundation for assistance.

Risks From Photography

It may be tempting to use your smartphone to photograph a submission, in order to share it with another journalist for quick review. Please note that many smartphones are configured to back up photographs to cloud services, immediately or intermittently. Not all backup settings may be visible to you.

Moreover, any digital photograph will include certain metadata by default, which may reveal sensitive information about your SecureDrop usage patterns (potentially including GPS coordinates) to anyone who gains access to the file.

Encrypting and Moving Documents to Your Everyday Workstation

Before moving documents back to the Transfer Device to copy them to your everyday workstation, encrypt them to your personal GPG key that you imported when setting up the Secure Viewing Station.

To do this, right-click on the document you want to encrypt and choose Encrypt….

Encrypting 1

Then choose your public key (and, if you choose, any additional keys, such as an editor’s) and click OK.

Encrypting 2

When you are done encrypting, you will have another document with the same filename but ending in .pgp (not .gpg; the .pgp extension is just another way to refer to the same format). This file is encrypted to the GPG keys you selected. You can now copy these encrypted files to the Transfer Device to transfer them to your everyday workstation.

Encrypted document

Important

As noted above, SecureDrop does not scan for or remove malware. If the file you received contains malware targeting the operating system and applications running on your everyday workstation, copying it in its original form carries the risk of spreading malware to that computer. Make sure you understand the risks, and consider other methods to export the document (e.g., print).

Decrypting and Preparing to Publish

Plug the Transfer Device into your everyday workstation computer and copy over the encrypted documents. Decrypt them with GPG.

You are now ready to write articles and blog posts, edit video and audio, and begin publishing important, high-impact work!

Tip

Check out our SecureDrop Promotion Guide to read about encouraging sources to use SecureDrop.