What can blockchain do for investigative journalism?

Geraldine Moriba
Mar 19, 2019 · 7 min read

Its potential uses raise even more questions, such as who guards the guardians?

Failure to hold the powerful accountable is the oldest challenge to democracies. It is the reason governments fail and corruption wins. It is also the reason that investigative journalism is an essential public service. Can we redesign and improve the systems that currently collect these stories in a way that reduces the costs for newsrooms and increases security for whistleblowers or anonymous sources? Can blockchain help? Can it be used as a tool to rebuild trust in an industry already under siege?

Marina Walker, deputy director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), estimates that it takes an average of 3 to 15 dedicated months to verify data; it is such labor-intensive work that some reporters have little time to work on any other stories. A single leaked document — or a massive dump of data — can arrive in any format: spreadsheets, emails, photographs, audio or video recordings. This confidential information needs to be fact checked, transcribed, organized, deciphered, then fact-checked again. The labor costs, combined with the cost of turning unstructured information into structured data and complex analysis, makes investigative stories tremendously expensive to produce. To offset these expenses, and sometimes the lost revenues resulting from advertisers keeping a distance, news organizations turn to foundations for funding support. This revenue model isn’t sustainable. The economic trade-offs, especially for regional or local newsrooms, can be insurmountable. How can blockchain facilitate these stories in a way that reduces the costs?

Every whistleblower has a story. Some stories are very big.

Take the Panama Papers, which exposed information about “offshore holdings of world political leaders, links to global scandals, and details of the hidden financial dealings of fraudsters, drug traffickers, billionaires, celebrities, sports stars and more.” The scale of this investigation was unprecedented. ICIJ and more than 100 news media partners examined 11.5 million leaked financial documents for more than 214,488 offshore entities. This story would not have existed without leaked information that was given to reporters at Süddeutsche Zeitung, a German newspaper, who shared it with ICIJ.

According to the Society of Professional Journalists, “leakers release information about the inner workings of the government agency or corporation they work for, often for political gain, to curry favor, or to test policies; whistleblowers are workers who release information that shows serious wrongdoing, mismanagement, waste or other abuses of public trust.” Whistleblowers and leakers shed light on corruption and injustice. Both need safety for the risks they take to support informed citizenry.

Investigative reporters rely on verifiable information from these anonymous sources who take great risks. Secure platforms are necessary to protect people who are vulnerable to termination, lawsuits, or imprisonment. Can blockchain better protect sources and keep the data secure? Is blockchain a viable option to help transform investigative journalism?

Here’s what blockchain does

  1. Makes permanent copies of every transaction.
  2. Gives a copy to everyone in the system every time.
  3. Uses cryptography to guard against fraud.

Here’s what blockchain could theoretically do for investigative journalists

  1. Whistleblowers could anonymously submit confidential data through IPFS, a secure decentralized storage system with advanced cryptography.
  2. Data could be verified by a worldwide network of journalists with private keys.
  3. Once the data is verified as being authentic it could be added to blockchain, making it immutable.
  4. Journalists would then report and write their stories.

This blockchain system would be an immutable way for whistleblowers to share confidential documents with reduced risk. It would be a public chain, meaning that anyone can submit to it, but no one can remove recorded information. The public data submitted would be encrypted to hide its content from the outside, restricting viewing to verifiers only. While encryption works with a public key that anyone can use, the file can only be decrypted by the verifier, who would be in possession of the corresponding private key.

Who are the verifiers? Only participating journalists with private keys in the ecosystem would see what is written to blockchain. They would be responsible for verifying the data in each block. This blockchain verification process would be a collaboration between journalists at different news agencies. This immutable system could increase accountability, and consequently, public trust.

“Democracy’s Detectives” by James Hamilton, director of Stanford’s journalism program and chair of the Communication Department, provides a comprehensive analysis of the economics of investigative journalism. “The social returns to investments in investigative reporting are large. Stories can cost thousands of dollars to produce but deliver millions in benefits spread across a community.” Yet this reporting, which provides the greatest social value, is also the type of reporting that is most vulnerable to diminished resources in a news industry struggling from extreme media consolidation and increased competition from non-news platforms.

Media organizations already use external open source systems like SecureDrop to securely accept documents from whistleblowers, share information in cloud files like AWS, Cryptomator and CryptPad, and use disk encryption tools like VeraCrypt. But none of these tools provide a time-stamped series of immutable, unchangeable record of data. In other words, it is not currently possible to determine if the data was altered after being submitted.

Here’s how blockchain encryption works

First, there is “sharding. ” This process divides the original database into shards. Then there is “swarming,” which is a process that collectively stores shards in a swarm (a large group of nodes). The decentralized nature of blockchain storage, combined with sharding and swarming, means that any hacker who manages to compromise a node will only be able to access a small, encrypted piece of data. They would still need to locate and decrypt all the other shards in a swarm to be able to make any sense of the data.

Participants can add to the blockchain ledger, but they cannot alter recorded information. If any participating news organization corrupts the downloaded data or misrepresents the information after transmission, or if downloaded information is hacked by cyber-attackers, there would be an indelible record with the original information. In this scenario, blockchain would be used as a trusted public ledger for investigative journalism.

Data is a valuable resource

Data is a fast-growing commodity. There is a critical need for the development of algorithms to sort, decipher and organize data for the purposes of analysis. Blockchain cannot do that. What it may be able to do is create a secure environment for collaborative work with data. Working together on blockchain, journalists may be able to reduce costs and increase the number of published investigative stories. Traditional journalists need to find ways to keep up with tech giants, like Facebook and Google, who have come to dominate the information market.

What could go wrong

  • Who determines the distribution of private keys to which journalists? Who determines the identity verification of trusted journalists? Who will be the administrator?
  • How do journalists determine the motivations of the whistleblowers if they are unidentified?
  • Whistleblowers could submit false information, which is always a risk. There is no way around it. Any data, especially if submitted anonymously, has to be verified.
  • Adoption of the platform could be low.
  • Blockchain encryption is mostly secure, but there is no guarantee that powerful technologies won’t be developed to decrypt stored files in the future.
  • Blockchain remains unproven when it comes to supporting the big data needs of businesses. Scalability is a constant concern.

What could go right

  • Shared verification of data by a worldwide network of journalists, resulting in collaboration on a larger scale.
  • Immutable data no Goliath could manipulate or misrepresent.
  • It’s more difficult to hack than a centralized cloud service, like AWS, with a single point of failure.
  • Faster fact checking and verification will lower costs.
  • Decentralized file storage is cheaper than centralized storage solutions because it doesn’t have to run through enormous cloud storage firms.
  • Anonymous sources will be safer and submit more stories.
  • Reduced fear of “fake news.” Increased public trust.
  • Higher level of civic engagement.

We are still learning. This communal blockchain tip box is a hypothetical tool generated by creative ideation to reorganize one of the many systems in our lives. It was prototyped using design-thinking methodology, but it hasn’t been tested in real-world situations. Which means the full implications are still to be determined. Either way, whether it works or not, these types of innovation explorations are necessary to develop better ways to ensure that collaboration between journalists is increased, anonymous sources are protected, costs are reduced, and essential news investigations that support informed citizenry continue to be reported. Now more than ever, reporters need to be our nation’s watchdogs and public accountability stories need to be published.

Acknowledgements: This story came about as a result of Stanford University’s You Say You Want A Revolution: Blockchain Edition, D-School course. The instructors were Carissa Carter, John Mitchell, and Ann Miura-Ko. Our team consisted of Natalya Thakur, Claudia Kania, Levi Lian, and me, Geraldine Moriba. If you have recommendations of other ways to improve journalism, I’d like to hear from you. DM me on Twitter @geraldinemoriba.

Geraldine Moriba

Written by

JSK Journalism Fellow at Stanford, Class of 2019. Emmy Winning Documentary Filmmaker. Writer.

JSK Class of 2019

Insights and updates from members of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships Class of 2019 at Stanford University

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