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.
Connecting to the Tor network in Tails¶
After you connect to the Internet in Tails 4.20, the Tor Connection assistant will start.
If you are operating in an environment with a high degree of political freedom, and you are able to access the Tor network reliably, you can accept the defaults:
- Click “Connect to Tor automatically (easier)”
- Leave the checkbox “Configure a Tor bridge” unchecked
- Click “Connect to Tor”
For more information about alternative ways to connect to the Tor network, please see the section “Connecting to the Tor network” in the Tails documentation.
The Tor Connection assistant may display an error message after connecting to the Tor network successfully. If the error message disappears after a few seconds, you can safely ignore it. The error is caused by SecureDrop-specific changes that briefly interrupt Tor connectivity.
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 the Tails Upgrade Documentation to upgrade the drives. Talk to your SecureDrop administrator if you have trouble.
Admin and Journalist Workstations 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 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.
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.
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 Onion Service address in Tor Browser. By design, this Onion 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. (If you have been provided with a YubiKey, see Using YubiKey with the Journalist Interface for detailed setup and usage information.)
Reset Passphrase or Two-factor Authentication Credentials¶
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 your two-factor device (i.e. your mobile phone or security key), you will need to contact your SecureDrop admin for assistance.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
a page with any documents or messages the source has sent you. Documents
always end with
-doc.gz.gpg, while messages always end with
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.
A dialog box with two choices will appear, Cancel and Save file.
Click Save file. In the save dialog, select one of the two folders called Tor Browser and Tor Browser (persistent). Note that the names may be abbreviated; you can view the full name by hovering the mouse over the shortcut.
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. The full path to this folder is
- Tor Browser (persistent): 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
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.
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.
- If the Transfer Device was set up according to our recommendations, you
- will be prompted for a decryption passphrase on the Journalist Workstation and the Secure Viewing Station before being able to use it in a given session. We recommend storing this passphrase in your own personal password manager (e.g., on your smartphone), so that it is readily accessible to you whenever you need it.
You can right-click the file and select Copy to, then select the Transfer Device in the Select Copy Destination dialog.
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.
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 in the list of places.
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.
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 Archive Manager
file-rolleron the command line), which allows you to extract the contents.
- Double-clicking files that end in
.gpgwill 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.
Always extract gzip archives with the Archive Manager 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
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
When you double-click an archive to open it, you should see it in the Archive Manager application.
Click the Extract button to unpack the archive. Navigate to the folder
containing the encrypted document message or document (ends with
and double-click it to decrypt it. The decrypted file it will have the same
filename, but without
.gpg at the end.
You can now double-click on the decrypted file to open it in its default application.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
For detailed information about removing metadata from documents, check out this in-depth guide to removing metadata.
Tails comes with the Metadata Anonymisation Toolkit 2 (MAT2) 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. We recommend using this and other tools to work with documents within Tails for as much of your workflow as possible.
Tails 4 replaces MAT with MAT2, which is usable via the command line and via a
context menu in the Files application (called
nautilus on the command
You can use MAT2 via the Files application by browsing to Places ▸ (Your file’s location) and right-clicking on your file. In the context menu, select Remove metadata.
Note that this does not alter the original file–it creates a clean copy.
To use MAT2 on the command line, type
man mat2 to see a list of available
actions you can take with MAT2. For example, you can view the metadata of a
mat2 myfile --show.
You can create a “clean” version of the document with
mat2 myfile, again
noting that this does not erase the metadata on the original file. This is
equivalent to the “Remove metadata” context menu option.
Note that even after running MAT2, you should carefully inspect files to ensure
that all metadata has been wiped, or convert them to a simpler file format (for
example, converting a
.xls file to a
.csv) to ensure that metadata is
not left behind in error.
When you no longer need documents, right-click them in the Files application and choose Wipe to securely delete them.
Risks From Malware¶
SecureDrop does not scan for or remove malware in submissions you receive. There are important steps you can take to protect yourself:
Keep the version of Tails on your Secure Viewing Station up-to-date.
Tails offers more protection against compromise than your everyday computer, and the air-gap prevents potential malware from “phoning home.” But if the version of Tails is outdated, an attacker can still attempt to exfiltrate or destroy information.
Print documents from the Secure Viewing Station instead of exporting them digitally, whenever possible.
Printing documents prevents the proliferation of malware to your everyday workstation, and eliminates most categories of embedded metadata. Note that printing a document may still preserve watermarks, printer codes, steganographically encoded data, or other information not visible to the naked eye.
Consult with your administrator or your digital security staff before copying files digitally.
If you must copy a file in digital form (because of its format, the volume of information, or for other reasons), we recommend taking the time to consult with technical experts within the organization.
Converting files to simpler formats (e.g., PDF to PNG) can help reduce the risk of malware. Tails provides both graphical and command-line utilities that can be used for this purpose.
Never scan QR codes embedded in documents using a network-connected device.
QR codes can contain malicious links that your device will automatically visit. In general, be careful 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 internally, or contact Freedom of the Press Foundation for assistance.
Don’t photograph submissions using your smartphone, and be careful with all digital photography.
Many smartphones are configured to back up photographs to cloud services, immediately or intermittently; newer digital cameras have similar functionality. Not all backup settings may be visible to you.
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.
Fully mitigating the risks of malware received via SecureDrop is beyond the scope of this documentation. If you have questions, you can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org (GPG encrypted) or via the support portal. Please do NOT disclose details about the contents of any submission you have received.
Moving Documents to Your Everyday Workstation¶
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).
If you must copy a file from your Secure Viewing Station to your everyday workstation in digital form, our recommendation is that journalists are provided with an Export Device, typically a USB drive, which is encrypted using VeraCrypt. These instructions assume that you are following the recommended workflow. If you are unsure, ask your administrator.
VeraCrypt support was added to Tails in version 3.9. We strongly recommend keeping your Secure Viewing Station up-to-date with each release of Tails.
To open the Export Device on the Secure Viewing Station, follow these steps:
- If your Export Device has a physical write protection switch, make sure it is in the unlocked position.
- Plug the Export Device into the Secure Viewing Station.
- Click Applications ▶ Utilities ▶ Unlock VeraCrypt Volumes
- Under “Partitions and Drives”, select the Export Device and click Unlock.
- Enter your passphrase, which we recommend keeping in your own personal password manager (e.g., on your smartphone), not on KeePassXC.
- Under “Partitions and Drives”, open the encrypted drive by clicking Open.
Steps 3-6 are illustrated below:
The Export Device should now open in the file manager. If there are still files on the Export Device from your last copy operation, securely delete them now.
Copy the file or files you want to access on your everyday workstation to the Export Device using the file manager.
Decrypting and Preparing to Publish¶
To decrypt a VeraCrypt drive on a Windows or Mac workstation, you need to have the VeraCrypt software installed. If you are unsure if you have the software installed or how to use it, ask your administrator, or see the Freedom of the Press Foundation guide for working with VeraCrypt.
To access the Export Device on your everyday workstation, follow these steps:
- If your Export Device has a physical write protection switch, make sure it is in the locked position.
- Plug the Export Device into your everyday workstation.
- Launch the VeraCrypt application.
- Click Select Device and select the Export Device, then click OK.
- Click Mount.
- Enter the passphrase for your Export Device. You should find this in your own personal password manager.
- Open the Export Device in your operating system’s file manager, and copy the contents of interest to your everyday workstation.
As a security precaution, we recommend deleting the files on the Export Device after each copy operation. If you are using write protection, you have to perform this step on the Secure Viewing Station to get the security benefits of write protection.
When you are done, switch back to the VeraCrypt window, and click Dismount.
You are now ready to write articles and blog posts, edit video and audio, and begin publishing important, high-impact work!
Check out our SecureDrop Promotion Guide to read about encouraging sources to use SecureDrop.
Deleting submissions and source accounts¶
As part of routine SecureDrop usage, we recommend that you establish data retention practices consistent with your organization’s threat model, data lifecycle and data retention policies. Regularly deleting submissions and source accounts can mitigate risks in the event that your SecureDrop servers or a source’s account details are compromised.
To delete sources, first select them in the list of all sources in the Journalist Interface, then click the Delete button. You will be given a choice to delete all messages and files for the selected sources, or to delete the source accounts.
If you delete messages and files for a source, the source will continue to appear in the list of sources in the Journalist Interface, and they will still be able to log into the Source Interface using their codename. Consider using this option as part of regular deletion of reviewed submissions, especially if you are not sure that all communication with the source has concluded.
If you delete all messages and files, that includes all replies you have sent to the source, even if the source has not seen them yet. You will still be able to send new replies.
If you delete the entire source account, the source will not be able to log in again using their codename, and all information about them will be destroyed. Consider using this option if it is clear that all communication with the source has concluded, or if the source has requested that all information about them and their submissions should be removed.
You can more selectively delete source submissions and journalist replies by
clicking the source’s two-word designation in the list of all sources. You will
see a list of source messages (filenames end with
-msg.gpg), file submissions
(filenames end with
-doc.gz.gpg) and journalist replies (filenames end with
Select the source data you wish to delete, then click the Delete button. You will be prompted for confirmation.
From the same page, you also have the option to delete the entire source account. To do so, click the button labeled Delete Source Account at the bottom of the page. You will be prompted for confirmation.