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Tech We’re Using: You Don’t Have to Be a Journalist to Want to Keep Chats Private

Tech We’re Using

You Don’t Have to Be a Journalist to Want to Keep Chats Private

It’s easy to leave behind digital evidence when talking to sources — or to friends. Here’s how Kate Conger, a tech reporter, reduces that exposure.

Kate Conger, a technology reporter in San Francisco, sending a friend a message via Signal, an encrypted communications app.CreditCreditKatrina Britney Davis for The New York Times

How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Kate Conger, a technology reporter for The Times in San Francisco, discussed the tech she’s using.

You cover breaking news about all things tech — from Google to Facebook to Twitter to Uber. What are your most important tools for staying quick on your toes?

I use alerts from Twitter and Dataminr, a social media monitoring service, alerts to keep up with breaking news, but one of the things I find most useful is keeping up with my group chats. I hang out in a lot of Signal and Slack groups with friends, colleagues and sources, and if I notice a topic is causing a lot of chatter, I know it’s time to start working on a story.

I use a note-taking app called Bear, which lets me sort and filter my notes using hashtags. It makes it really easy for me to keep my notes orderly while I’m running around between interviews, and makes it possible for me to quickly return to a conversation months or even years later if I need to refer to it again. I’m always a bit stressed about the security of tools I use for reporting, but Bear syncs through Apple’s CloudKit, a framework that lets the app developers store my data on Apple’s servers, so I feel relatively comfortable with it.

Ms. Conger using Dataminr, which monitors social media for signs of breaking news.CreditKatrina Britney Davis for The New York Times

For me, the most important way to stay quick is to stay focused — so I ultimately end up relying on pen and ink more than tech tools. It feels as if my half-baked thoughts are constantly getting bumped down my news feeds, so I keep a paper to-do list. I have disappearing messages turned on in most of my Slack, Signal and WhatsApp conversations, so sometimes I also need to write down important points so I don’t forget them. I’m paranoid, and keeping paper notes feels safer to me.

What app do you use most?

The app I use more than any other is Spotify. I’m playing music constantly from the minute I wake up until I go back to sleep, which helps me keep track of time. If I’ve played a whole album through and not finished writing a paragraph, I know it’s time to buckle down.

But I have such a love-hate relationship with Spotify. I do really like the Daily Mixes, which help me discover new music. I wish I could pin or save them. Sometimes I get mixes based on artists I haven’t listened to in ages, and I just want to go back to the mix I had on repeat the day before.


The Spotify music service is one of the few apps that Ms. Conger has decided is worth paying for.CreditKatrina Britney Davis for The New York Times

What Spotify can’t do, though, is read minds, “so I’m disappointed.”CreditKatrina Britney Davis for The New York Times

I’m horribly cheap, but Spotify is one of the few apps I pay for. Since I’m paying, my expectations are sky high, and yet the app is buggy and slow, and it crashes regularly. I expect it to read my mind and know exactly what I want to hear at all times, but it doesn’t, so I’m disappointed.

I also love that more and more messaging apps are adding options for ephemeral conversation. I’m increasingly convinced that the default of digitally hoarding all conversations forever was a terrible idea, and I like that I can get my conversations to disappear from most of the chat apps I use now.

You’ve written a lot about security. How do you keep your own tech setup secure?

I got interested in security out of necessity. When I was a kid using social media for the first time, I was also in the process of extricating myself from an abuser. I had to figure out how to use things like Myspace — it felt very important at the time to have a vibrant Myspace life! — in ways that would protect my anonymity, my location data and other sensitive information. I’d constantly be messaging my friends, asking them to take down certain pictures or posts that could help my abuser find me.

This isn’t a concern for me anymore, but the situation forced me to think about what kinds of personal data I was sharing online from the moment I started doing it, and I’m grateful for that. A lot of people don’t think about their online privacy until they’re dealing with a compromising situation in which their data is already out there.

Unfortunately, I think experiences like mine are quite common. Lots of people learn about the risks to their online security only when they’re affected by a widespread breach like Equifax, or another security threat. After college, I started learning more about cryptography and going to crypto parties, which helped me realize security could be something fun instead of something scary. Encryption is seen as this nerdy, niche subject, but I think there’s something almost romantic about putting in the time and effort to keep a conversation private and safe — it shows you care.

What about protecting conversations with sources?

I approach security as a journalist in much the same way that I’ve approached security as a person. The first thing I think about is limiting my exposure — what kind of data are my source and I generating? How do I minimize that footprint, or at least minimize how long my devices retain it? The second step is securing the data we do end up generating, which often means encrypting it.


Handwritten to-do lists help Ms. Conger keep focused without worrying about digital privacy.CreditKatrina Britney Davis for The New York Times

Encrypted chat apps like Signal have made security and ephemerality so much easier. But because they require a phone number, there’s still what’s called the first contact problem — how does someone who doesn’t have your phone number initiate a secure conversation with you? I’ve tinkered around with a few different approaches: using burner SIM cards, setting up secondary numbers with Google Voice or Twilio, or using apps, like Wickr, that don’t force me to publish my phone number. But I haven’t settled on a solution that feels totally seamless yet.

All this security tech can get overwhelming. I still believe that sometimes the most secure, ephemeral conversation you can have is an in-person one.

What tech product are you personally obsessed with?

I’m honestly a bit slow about adopting new technology. I think I ought to be more adventurous as a tech reporter, but I tend to find things I like and stick with them. For example, I’m refusing to upgrade my iPhone because I like Touch ID — I haven’t even tried Face ID yet.

The tech products I’ve been enjoying lately are products that are intended to make me less reliant on tech, funnily enough. I took my colleague Nellie Bowles’s advice and turned my phone screen to grayscale, which has been really relaxing. I’ve also used the new App Limits feature in iOS 12 to lock myself out of my social media accounts on weekends. I feel I have so much more time now.

Oh, and portable battery packs! I don’t know how I ever survived without them. They are perfect lifesaving angels.

Kate Conger is a technology reporter in San Francisco, covering privacy, policy and labor. Previously, she wrote about cybersecurity for Gizmodo and TechCrunch. @kateconger

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page B5 of the New York edition with the headline: Taking Steps to Keep Private Chats Private. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe


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