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
#Clinton. 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.