Interest Article

COVID-19 Advisory: SecureDrop and Remote Work

March 18, 2020

Current WHO recommendations for social distancing due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic may make it difficult for organizations to check SecureDrop. The Secure Viewing Station (SVS) is typically stored in a secure and centralized location, which may not be accessible to journalists working remotely.

Your workplace might already have Business Continuity Plans and work-from-home security guidance relevant to this scenario. The following recommendations are specific to the usage of SecureDrop in a distributed environment and should complement these policies.

One option to allow uninterrupted access to SecureDrop is to set up a remote Secure Viewing Station for the use by individual journalists, but this increases the risk of the SVS—and its Submission Key—being compromised. If you’re considering the use of a remote SVS, here are some steps you can follow to minimize the associated risks:

  • Provide access to the smallest number of people that is reasonable to ensure sufficient coverage. Individuals with access to a Secure Viewing Station can triage submissions on behalf of other members of your team. This minimizes the risk that the Submission Key falls into the wrong hands.
  • Ensure that journalists have the necessary hardware off-site to access the Journalist Interface and to work with sensitive data. Discourage the use of personal hardware. Provide assistance to journalists to ensure the physical and digital security of sensitive devices and documents.
  • Provision a new Secure Viewing Station USB drive. This USB should be on the latest version of Tails, and should contain only the Submission Key. Keep an inventory of any provisioned SVS USBs for later decommissioning purposes. Please see below for a step-by-step guide.
  • Provide a secure communications method for SecureDrop users and administrators. The chosen procedure should provide end-to-end encryption and ideally guard against the threat of malware. Please see below for some considerations for sharing files securely.
  • Ensure the physical security of the SecureDrop servers and original SVS while your team works remotely, following your BCP if possible. If the office will be completely unattended, consider storing the original SVS USB with senior staff or legal counsel.
  • Prepare to respond to the loss or compromise of the remote SVS. At a minimum, this would involve rotating the Submission Key, which would prevent an adversary from decrypting future submissions using the compromised key.

Setting up a remote SVS

In order to create a new SVS for remote use, you will need the following:

  • An air-gapped computer similar to the computer being used for your current Secure Viewing Station. This workstation will be used for provisioning the new SVS USB, and will also be used as part of the remote SVS system.
    • Important: Any computer used as an SVS must be air-gapped by removing or physically disabling all networking hardware (including Bluetooth), and by removing or physically disabling speakers and microphones. A computer used as an SVS should never be used for any other purpose. See our setup guide for more information.
  • An up-to-date Tails USB (the primary Tails USB). You do not need to set up persistent storage on this device, as it will not be used during the SVS setup process.
  • The current SVS USB, and its persistent volume’s passphrase
  • A USB key to act as the new SVS USB

To create the new SVS USB:

  1. Boot into Tails using the primary Tails USB on the air-gapped workstation. When you see the welcome dialog, you can proceed without enabling persistence or setting an admin password.
  2. Install Tails on the new SVS USB, following the instructions here.
  3. Boot into the new SVS USB and enable persistence with a strong passphrase (a 6-word Diceware passphrase is recommended). In the Persistent volume configuration wizard, be sure to enable persistence for “GnuPG - GnuPG Keyrings and configuration”.

    Temporarily store the persistent volume passphrase in your password manager. You should delete it once you have given the USB and passphrase to the journalist who will be using them.
  4. Reboot the new SVS USB with persistence enabled and an administration password set.
  5. Plug the current SVS USB into a free port on the workstation.
  6. Mount its persistent volume by browsing to Places > Computer, clicking the USB disk in the left-hand column, and entering its persistent volume’s passphrase.
  7. Open a terminal via Applications > Favorites > Terminal
  8. Copy the current SVS’s GPG keychain (which includes the Submission Key) to the new SVS USB using the following command (without linebreaks):

    sudo bash -c "rsync -a --no-specials --no-devices /media/amnesia/TailsData/gnupg/ /live/persistence/TailsData_unlocked/gnupg/"

  9. Eject and remove the current SVS USB.
  10. Verify that the Submission Key is present with the correct fingerprint on the new SVS USB via Applications > Utilities > Passwords and Keys.

The new SVS should now be ready for use. The journalist that will be checking submissions will need the new SVS USB, its Persistent Volume passphrase, and the air-gapped computer—they should be handed over in a secure manner. They should test the regular decryption workflow using the new SVS as part of the handover process.

Sharing files and messages with other journalists

If you receive documents via SecureDrop, if possible, avoid sharing or opening these files electronically outside of the Secure Viewing Station. Opening documents on your daily-use computer exposes you to the risk that embedded malware and tracking code could exfiltrate information or de-anonymize your sources.

If printing is an option, printing and re-scanning a document is the most effective mitigation against many of these risks.

If you want to transfer files electronically, you can take steps on the Secure Viewing Station to mitigate against these risks (e.g., stripping metadata from files and converting them to other formats). If you decide to copy files off the Secure Viewing Station, we recommend using an encrypted Export Device, as described in our documentation.

If you want to transfer files to another journalist using your day-to-day work computer, we strongly recommend using end-to-end encrypted communication tools like Signal and Wire, both of which have desktop apps, instead of more common tools like Slack or unencrypted email.

For security reasons, we advise against taking photos of documents using your phone, but if you decide to do so, please see our guide to taking private photos with Signal.

Protecting, moving, or taking down your SecureDrop instance

If the location hosting your SecureDrop servers is going to be empty for extended periods of time, you should take steps to ensure the security of your servers and associated hardware:

  • Ensure that the room where the servers are installed is locked by default, and that only authorized personnel have access. If possible, have access logged.
  • If the server room is covered by CCTV, verify that the footage will be monitored or reviewed periodically.
  • Ask to have adjacent corridors included in any regular security patrols.
  • Ask journalists to purge old submissions, to reduce the impact if the servers are compromised (this is good general practice in any case).
  • If your SecureDrop instance is set up to allow SSH-over-LAN admin access, consider switching it to SSH-over-Tor access instead. To do so, you will need to update the server configuration using the Admin Workstation.

In some cases, if you are not able to ensure the security of your instance during periods of prolonged absence, it may be better to relocate it, or in extreme circumstances, temporarily take it down. If you decide to take down your SecureDrop instance, we recommend the following steps:

  1. Consult with journalists using the system, to ensure that any active sources are aware of the situation, and that source conversations can either be paused or continued via other means.
  2. Update your SecureDrop landing page (typically a “send us tips” page, or a page linked from there) to let prospective sources know that the outage is coming, and optionally to redirect them to other contact methods, such as a shared Signal tipline.
  3. Back up your servers and your workstation USBs.
  4. Power down the servers, and remove them and the network firewall from the server room. Store the equipment securely offsite.

Note that by default the SecureDrop servers are not set up with full disk encryption enabled, to allow for hands-off reboots. This means that it is crucial that they be kept secure. If the servers are lost or stolen, an adversary would gain access to all encrypted submissions and messages. While they would not be able to decrypt them, this would still provide valuable metadata about source conversations.

In most cases, restoring the instance, whether in their original hosting location or elsewhere, is a matter of reconnecting the servers to the firewall, attaching a WAN connection that allows unfiltered access to Tor to the firewall WAN port, and powering everything on.

Questions and comments

If you have questions or comments, please don't hesitate to reach out:

  • Via our Support Portal, if you are a member (membership is available to SecureDrop administrators on request);
  • Via (GPG encrypted) for sensitive security issues (please use judiciously);
  • Via our community forums.

The SecureDrop team is fully distributed, and we will strive to maintain our normal levels of responsiveness.

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