January 23, 2019

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Digital Privacy Is a Big Concern in Europe. For This Reporter, Too.

Digital Privacy Is a Big Concern in Europe. For This Reporter, Too.
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How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Matt Apuzzo, an investigative correspondent in Brussels, discussed the tech he’s using.

What are the most important tech tools for you as an investigative journalist?

As with most people these days, my go-to device is my phone, which in my case is an iPhone X. I don’t use it for anything particularly unique to journalism, except maybe document scanning. Sometimes, I might have only a minute to see a key document, and having it can mean the difference between breaking a story and not. For years I have used an app called TurboScan Pro, and I love it.

Tech is great, but there’s no substitute for personal relationships. I prefer face-to-face conversations whenever possible, and I almost never record them. I use small, discreet notebooks like the Moleskine pocket journal. A lot of my interviews are over coffee, drinks or meals, and I want something as unobtrusive as possible at the table. I love the feel of the Rhodia pocket webnotebook, but let’s be honest: I’m not picky. Some of the best, most surprising nuggets of information have been scribbled on napkins or the backs of envelopes or tapped in text messages to myself.

I try to transcribe long interviews immediately. I have been a longtime devotee of the web-based app Workflowy for taking notes, at the recommendation of my colleague Farhad Manjoo. It’s particularly great for long-term projects and collaborations. I recently downloaded and am trying out the app Bear at the recommendation of another colleague, Kate Conger. My dream piece of note-taking software has a lightweight, fast interface that supports tagging and annotation of PDFs. I’ve tried Evernote and OneNote but found both to be too bloated for my purposes. The quest continues.

I use a MacBook Pro, which I like for its full-disk encryption. But it devours battery life. Maybe it’s just my device, but it loses 50 percent of its charge while sleeping overnight, and Apple says there’s nothing wrong with it. So I followed the lead of another colleague, Eric Lipton, and invested in a power pack that can recharge both my Mac and my phone. I picked a unit from ZDI because Wirecutter recommended it, and I’m quite happy with it.

When I travel, it all gets tossed into an Everyday Max Backpack, which opens and packs like a roll aboard but carries like a slim backpack and includes a separate laptop compartment. All the cables are kept in check with the Grid-It organization system.

How do you keep communications with sources secure?

Before moving to Europe this summer, I spent about a decade covering national security and intelligence in cities like Washington, so I’m pretty security conscious. Before I left, a friend who works in intelligence offered a gentle reminder that most countries would probably consider me fair game for intelligence collection.

So I use a cheap Chromebook when traveling to places where curious eyes might be tempted to sneak a peek. I set it up with a burner account, and I never connect it to any personal or business accounts.

And all those note-taking apps? If I’m working on something particularly sensitive or talking to someone who is sticking his neck out by meeting with me, those notes often don’t get saved digitally. When the story is done, the notebook gets tossed and that’s the end of it.

For my phone, I appreciate Apple’s encryption standards. I don’t appreciate having to turn off all the location-based corporate surveillance on my iPhone, but nothing is perfect.

For text-based conversations, I use mostly Signal and WhatsApp. But as President Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort reminded us all: End-to-end encryption is useless if you’re backing up chats to the cloud. So I don’t.

What’s the biggest difference you’ve noticed in how Europeans use tech versus Americans?

The biggest difference seems to be one of trust. Speaking generally, Europeans seem far more suspicious of private companies and far more trusting of their governments. Americans don’t trust the government with their data, but will click “O.K.” to allow companies to mine their personal lives and sell their information to any number of unsavory buyers. Again this is a generalization, but the idea that companies can secretly use your personal information to manipulate you seems much more unsettling to Europeans than the knowledge that the government is tracking subway rides and videotaping city streets.

And tech-savvy countries like Estonia are innovating in ways that make government more efficient. When you see Estonia’s “only once” policy — the promise that you’ll never have to give the government a piece of information more than once — it’s hard not to view the United States and all of its paper as slow and outdated. Age, sex, address, date of birth, employer, phone number: How many times have you scratched them on a piece of paper for a different bureaucrat in a different office in a different wing of the American bureaucracy?

What are the most important tech tools now for you and your family in keeping touch with folks back home?

The move has been pretty seamless, techwise. I’m on WhatsApp with my family and friends and Signal with my colleagues, just as before. I ported my Washington cell number to Tossable Digits, a service that forwards calls to my Brussels number and forwards text messages to my email address. It’s nice to keep an American number handy.

You won’t find me on Facebook. I pulled the plug and don’t miss it at all.

And I’m almost three years clean on Twitter, which was a much harder break. But I noticed it was really hurting my attention span. Plus, it just felt like an endless version of the worst kind of cocktail party. Only with Nazis. So many Nazis. I’m still there as @mattapuzzo, though, because a colleague told me that if I deleted the account it would be taken over by sex bots.

And nobody wants that.





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