Ali later showed me the spreadsheet, which included detailed information about sources in Tripoli who were in contact with the regime. One entry, titled “Hasan,” included a phone number and read: “Eyewitness who did not want to be named even with first name. Has a land line to prove he is in Tripoli but does not want to talk on it.” The spreadsheet’s authors also seemed to recognize the sensitivity of the information: “Please keep these contacts internal for just the int’l desk—and our team in Cairo. Do not pass these around to shows, etc.” Chillingly, Ahmed Ali recognized his fiancee’s phone number, though her name was not mentioned—she was still in Tripoli at the time. “I told her she needed to ditch that SIM card,” he said.

Despite the fact that the technology is complex and always changing, there are some basic practices that reporters can learn about online—such as how to encrypt your hard drive—that will only take an evening or two to implement. These precautions should extend to your smartphone as well. Look for a model that offers hardware encryption, and lock it with a longer password that includes random numbers and letters. It’s not rocket science (though it would have helped the NASA engineers who, it was reported in March, lost an unencrypted laptop with codes for the International Space Station).

If you’re reporting from a country with sophisticated electronic surveillance capabilities, like China or Iran, or trying to shield sources from Western intelligence agencies, then the techniques involved are more complicated and might require expert assistance. News organizations need to have in-house resources for their reporters, and they should offer assistance to the freelancers with whom they work.

Smyth, who helps train journalists in security practices, believes that part of the problem is one of mindset, as veteran reporters and editors find it frustrating and unnecessary to change longstanding practices. “You’re asking someone who’s already established and proven themselves to learn a new language,” he said.

Too many journalists I spoke to still regard digital security as an esoteric province of the technically inclined, and expressed fatalism that if “they” want to get it from you, they’ll get it. But as our research methods and communications are increasingly digitized, we need to accept that digital security is a fundamental aspect of the trade, as basic as maintaining accurate notes or paying attention to libel law.

The stakes can be incredibly high. Kardokh is still hiding. He’s now working on the Cyber Arabs Project, sponsored by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, which aims to build an out-of-the-box laptop and mobile kit for activists that supports secure and anonymous communication.

Kardokh said that he is still grateful that McAllister helped draw attention to the situation in Syria, and noted that Channel 4 had been very active in providing assistance to their sources after the arrest. “For me, this was enough to say that Sean is still a friend,” he told me. He wished, though, that journalists would better inform themselves about the risks before visiting. “I think Western journalists can’t imagine the power of the regime here.”


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Matthieu Aikins is a freelance journalist who writes for Harper's, The Atlantic, GQ, and other magazines