Beijing Olympics Advice from ex-CNN journalist

Journalists coming to cover the Beijing Olympics must balance convenience and paranoia when it comes to their digital security, according to Rebecca MacKinnon, former Beijing Bureau Chief of CNN who now teaches digital journalism at Hong Kong University.

In this video Rebecca offers tips on how to:

1- Get behind the Great Firewall
The Beijing government blocks access to many websites (Wikipedia, some publications, many blogging sites).

To reach these sites, reporters will need to set up a VPN such as WiTopia or use a browser enabled with TOR.

That said, the government seems to be unblocking much of the Internet and may remove most blocks at international hotels and press centers during the games.

2- Keep your Communications Private
To ensure your communications are secure from government snooping, don’t use MSN Messenger or most other chat services.

A simple way to ensure a higher level of email security with Gmail is by adding an S for a secure connection. Instead of add an S to make it

For those who want even more secure options, there is Vaulet Soft or PGP to encrypt email. More details available on the Frontline Defenders digital security website.

Keep in mind, however, that the recipient of your email must also be using secure email to keep your message private. The best way to be absolutely certain communications are secure is to have substantive communications in person. (Didn’t they have conversations near a running shower in John Le Carre novels?)

3- Protect your sources and fixers
As a foreign journalist you are not in any real danger.

The worst thing that will happen is to a foreign journalist is getting kicked out. Your main concern should be for your local sources and assistants who will be in danger if you misquote them or place them at odds with the government.

They – and their families – could suffer the consequences of your story long after you go home and the Olympics ends.

4- Scramble your data
Chinese authorities have been known to copy laptop data from jouranlists who leave computers in their hotel room.

If you are concerned about sensitive information, you could scramble your laptop hard drive, keep your laptop with you at all times or keep sensitive information on a USB key.

5- Do smart stories
Rebecca’s concern is that there will be many so-called Parachute Journalists arriving on their first trip to China and eager to make a splash.

“I doubt we will see much dissident activity, but there will be a lot of journalists roaming around looking for a story,” Rebecca said. “I have told many of my friends to avoid speaking with parachute journalists, because the outcome of being misquoted could be devastating.”

Leave a Reply


  1. anonyous

    I like the comment on Parachute Journalists, these are the most dangerous animals that are self-righteous but do great harm to society. I wonder how many foreign correspondents are not petty parachute journalists.

  2. Wikipedia is accessible now in China.

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  6. I think using online storage might be a nice alternative as well. Hardware on your person is always risky, but keeping your data “in the clouds” makes it untouchable. is a good service, though I hear they’re up for sale now. Microsoft’s Skydrive is similar, but it doesn’t work in China. I use Apple’s online iDisk, and haven’t had any problems with it… yet.

  7. Great job on the interview Thomas, and thanks loads to Rebecca for sharing her insight – all great advice.

    I would go so far to say that a lot of her advice would be good to keep in mind for expats who spend most of their time in China as well. Generally they’ve a whole lot less to be paranoid about, but just because your paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you 😉

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  9. Julie F Outlaw

    nice article! nice site. you're in my rss feed now 😉
    keep it up

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