The immorality of leaking private information indiscriminately

The Hindu shouldn’t be collaborating in this unethical enterprise

When Wikileaks indiscriminately leaked diplomatic correspondence it had the fig leaf of claiming it was exposing wrongdoing by governments. Never mind that it put the lives and safety of informants in authoritarian countries at risk while only revealing details of how international diplomacy is conducted. Those details might have surprised ordinary people who were unfamiliar with the workings of their foreign ministries and embassies, they didn’t achieve any lofty public purpose. As I argued then, they might have conversely caused governments to tighten up their information silos to the detriment of the public interest.

Now, when Wikileaks has indiscriminately leaked the email archives of a private firm, Stratfor, there is no fig leaf of any kind left. Stratfor is a private intelligence company that collects and sells geopolitical analysis to private and government buyers. The nature of its business requires it to seek out informants, negotiate with them and pay them. It might procure leads from US government agencies and sell them information. All this is in the nature of its business.

Some people might be appalled that other people do this kind of business, but it is a legitimate business. Stratfor didn’t claim to be the Red Cross or a humanitarian organisation. It claims to be “a subscription-based provider of geopolitical analysis…(using) a unique, intelligence-based approach to gathering information via rigorous open-source monitoring and a global network of human sources.” It is what it says it is. It operates legally.

If Julian Assange or anyone else knows of specific instances of wrongdoing or illegal activity by Stratfor or its employees, the right thing to do is register a complaint with the relevant law-enforcement authorities. If Mr Assange has evidence of illegality, the only ethical thing for him to do is to hand it over to the authorities. Wholesale, indiscriminate leaking of private information—because you dislike Stratfor’s business or suspect illegality—is neither ethical nor moral. It is quite likely illegal.

From what we know of Julian Assange, he lacks the moral compass to make these fairly obvious ethical judgements. The Hindu, though, does (or, perhaps, used to). I often disagree with the newspaper’s editorial line. However, until the Indian newspaper’s dalliance with Wikileaks, I did not have reason to complain about its basic ethics. No longer. It is unclear just how a reputed institution like The Hindu could be a willing collaborator with Mr Assange on the violation of the privacy of a private company.

If the editors of The Hindu believe that invading Stratfor’s privacy is somehow acceptable then they ought to start by opening up their own corporate email systems to the public. Make every email and phone call public. Surely the public has a right to know the names of the informants who talk to the newspaper’s journalists? Surely the public must know what the journalists tell each other and to their editors? So what if the informants are honest whistleblowers risking their lives or crafty officials manipulating public opinion? Let’s have it. Let the people decide!

If The Hindu’s editors think that their own emails are private information, why then are they denying that right to Stratfor?


Update: In an editorial note published on February 28th, the newspaper justifies its collaboration with Wikileaks on two premises. First, that “confidentiality and privacy cannot be invoked as a cover for wrongdoing or unethical behavior”; and second, “the unusual nature of Stratfor’s business — in essence, providing intelligence to clients who include governments and large corporations, some embroiled in serious controversies, like Dow Chemical — means that there is a compelling public interest in studying the e-mails to see if they cast light on corporate or governmental wrong-doing.”

This is sophistry. The ethical question here is how can we know a priori that there is wrongdoing? Is it ethical for individuals and newspapers to steal private property (or deal with thieves) merely on suspicion? Even the police can’t search without warrant. So if I suspect The Hindu of being on the payroll of the Chinese Communist Party, it it acceptable for me to hack into their email systems, or ransack their offices, to look for evidence of “wrongdoing or unethical behavior”? Clearly not.

And surely the “unusual nature of StratFor’s business” is not that unusual. For instance, “the unusual nature of The Hindu’s business – in essence providing information to clients who include governments, large corporations, rapists, convicts and enemies of India, some embroiled in serious controversies like the 2G scam and the genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka — means that there is a compelling public interest in studying the emails to see if they cast light on corporate or governmental wrong-doing.”

So let The Hindu open up its email archives to me. I will be ‘acutely aware that my use of this material imposes special obligations upon me, in particular to respect the privacy of the legitimate business activities and private correspondence of The Hindu, its staff and those they may have corresponded with. In my reportage, I shall do my utmost to respect this obligation, by only publishing material if it clearly points to corporate or government wrong-doing or unethical behaviour, and thus meets the test of compelling public interest.’

If this proposal strikes you as preposterous, it is because it is. Strangely, and unfortunately, The Hindu’s editors are doing just this to someone else.