Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Tuesday, August 23, 2016 7:41 pm

WikiLeaks isn’t just committing bad journalism, it’s also putting lives at risk

Filed under: Journalism — Lex @ 7:41 pm
Tags: ,

I don’t pretend to know what motivates WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange. But here’s what I do know: The site, which was started ostensibly to reveal secret government documents of public interest, now apparently is taking whatever it can find and just dumping it, actually putting lives at risk:

WikiLeaks’ global crusade to expose government secrets is causing collateral damage to the privacy of hundreds of innocent people, including survivors of sexual abuse, sick children and the mentally ill, The Associated Press has found.

In the past year alone, the radical transparency group has published medical files belonging to scores of ordinary citizens while many hundreds more have had sensitive family, financial or identity records posted to the web. In two particularly egregious cases, WikiLeaks named teenage rape victims. In a third case, the site published the name of a Saudi citizen arrested for being gay, an extraordinary move given that homosexuality is punishable by death in the ultraconservative Muslim kingdom.

“They published everything: my phone, address, name, details,” said a Saudi man who told AP he was bewildered that WikiLeaks had revealed the details of a paternity dispute with a former partner. “If the family of my wife saw this … Publishing personal stuff like that could destroy people.”

WikiLeaks’s response to the Associated Press’s reporting did not instill confidence that the organization is thinking clearly about its aims and goals:

US big media scramble to side with presumptive winner . We expect many more recycled attacks like AP’s today as our leaks continue.

So, no explanation of, let alone justification for, the publication of people’s private information, including information that could be lethal in the wrong hands.

As I said yesterday in my post on Gawker, with great power comes great responsibility. WikiLeaks could be a tremendous force for government transparency and a tool to give people greater control over their governments and other institutions. But now, I’m not sure what the hell it’s trying to prove. Is Assange just going after people over petty grudges? Worse, is he subjecting random people he doesn’t even know to this treatment? Honestly, it’s enough to make me wonder about Assange’s own state of mental health.

I would reluctantly agree that there can be some times when hacking is justified, in an ethical sense if not a legal one: when the public good urgently requires information to be distributed that can be obtained in no other way. That’s a vague criterion on purpose: Every case and every set of circumstances is different.

I say I “reluctantly” agree because hacking is such an enormous invasion of privacy and because the potential for its abuse is extremely high, as this case illustrates.

It’s ethically dicey enough when a source willingly provides a news outlet information knowing that he could be retaliated against. How much worse is it when, in this case, the information was both illegally obtained and given without the permission of the owner of the information in a situation in which no public good appears to be served?

Again, I don’t know what motivates Assange, and I care only insofar as that knowledge might be used to influence him not to publish private stuff about people who, so far as we know, have done nothing wrong. But if he doesn’t watch it, he’s going to have innocent blood on his hands.

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3 Comments »

  1. Yeah, this is one of those things where there may be a value in something, but the true believers go too far. I work in government and I’m a huge believer in transparency and the public’s right to know. But, at the same time, if every conversation and every communication and every document is subject to public inspection and review, it makes it very difficult to have real conversations about real issues. Just think about it in terms of what you do during the day. If you know that the “public” was going to have access to your every conversation and communication, would you converse and communicate as openly as you might otherwise if you know those conversations would remain private. For governments to be effective they actually do need to have some confidentiality and privacy within their communications.

    Comment by kingmidget — Tuesday, August 23, 2016 10:32 pm @ 10:32 pm | Reply

    • I’m gonna disagree, at least as it pertains to state and local government. The law in Florida is that pretty much every document and conversation is public, and whatever other problems Florida state and local government have, excessive transparency is not one of them. Twenty-five years of covering state and local government left me more convinced than ever that sunlight is the best disinfectant.

      The federal government is a slightly different creature, particularly as it pertains to national security. Still, there’s way too much information at that level that’s classified and shouldn’t be, including information regarding crimes committed by our government. (It’s a crime to classify information to cover up evidence of a crime, which is good, but no one ever gets prosecuted for that, which is bad.)

      And the issue here isn’t that WikiLeaks has revealed too much government information, but that it has released information about private individuals that could leave them open to identity theft or worse, without any clear public purpose for the release.

      Comment by Lex — Wednesday, August 24, 2016 8:07 am @ 8:07 am | Reply

      • I’m willing to bet you and I aren’t that far apart on this. As I said, I fundamentally agree with the need for transparency and disclosure, but there are times when that harms the work of government officials.

        My office is working on a piece of legislation. To try to get it right, we’re having conversations with a lot of different stakeholders, both inside and outside of government. If those conversations are subject to disclosure, some of those stakeholders may not engage in the conversation which can lead to legislation that isn’t as effective.

        I struggle with this dynamic because I agree that the public has a right to know what is going on, but I also think it important that public officials have the ability to engage and full and frank conversations with interested parties. Those conversations become harder to have with disclosure. There’s a balance in there that’s hard to pinpoint.

        Comment by kingmidget — Wednesday, August 24, 2016 9:52 am @ 9:52 am | Reply


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