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.

13 thoughts on “The immorality of leaking private information indiscriminately”

  1. Good points about The Hindu’s decision on supporting the leak.
    However, what’s your solution to someone who believes the system as a whole is corrupt? What if, the “authorities” and the “law” you mention are distrusted? What should the course of action then? For instance, do people in Syria or Congo have the luxury of authorities and law?
    I am not defending Assange here. Clearly, Wikileaks operates in a horrible fashion. I would have been more sympathetic to them if they used solid discretion. Nothing they have revealed so far has lead to betterment of people (for lack of a better phrase).

    While agreeing that morality should trump all else in such scenarios (leaking private information which “may” truly help society) , I don’t agree that “reporting to authorities” is necessarily the only ethical option

  2. I support the Hindu’s exposure. We as ordinary citizens will get a glimpse of the inner workings of EisenHower’s military industrial complex of which this stratfor seems to be classic manifestation

  3. Yes, Stratfor is a very respectable organization! It spies on Bhopal gas victims and activists on the behest of Dow Chemicals/Union Carbide.
    All perfectly legal of course and I am sure.

    Any comment on the immorality of Stratfor’s actions?

  4. This post is uncharacteristically muddled. To understand the flaw in the argument just contemplate two different individuals.
    Individual A spies on private citizens, collects data on them, maintains files on all kinds of Individuals/organisations and then sells it to the highest bidder.
    Individual B does the same except that it releases the info in public domain without charging anything. Now the thrust of this post is to exonerate individual A that is Startfor and heap blame on Wikileaks. Are you claiming that invasion to privacy is justified provided it results in economic transactions?

  5. You have a strange moral compass Mr.Pai. While a private agency spying on individuals and other organizations on behalf of its corporate and government clients is okay because it is a “legitimate business”, you don’t see any invasion of privacy there. On the other hand, someone who exposes the morally repugnant actions of these “legitimate” organizations is indulging in immoral conduct.

    It may be worthwhile pointing out that “legitimacy” is only relevant when laws enacted by a certain state or its government are in consideration. I don’t see ho legitimate or illegal can be directly mapped to moral and immoral.

  6. I question the premise of this article. Surely Assange+Anonymous’ actions are of questionable morality. But the premise of your criticism of Assange is flawed.

    If we were to apply similar arguments, what ‘Deep Throat’ Mark Felt did would be immoral (and surely, illegal!) too. And pretty much anything any whistleblower who ever went to the press before the law enforcement! I think the arguments must be more nuanced and less absolutist. You ought to look at the relative morals. Leaking some emails vs. finding out that officials were possibly bribed to influence policy? Even to just find out that public officials have undisclosed sources of income (if that is the outcome) can be a justification for such whistle blowing.

    When there are holes in the system, doing something illegal to point out the holes is not as absolutely and obviously immoral as you argue here!

  7. Sir,

    Let me state at the outset that I hold no brief for Wikileaks, Anonymous or for The Hindu. The actions of Wikileaks and Anonymous may have unintended disastorous consequences, though they claim noble intent.

    However, let me point out the logical fallacies in your argument.

    a) You charge that The Hindu and Wikileaks have committed an ethical breach in publishing the information hacked by Anonymous.
    b) You also maintain that the correct course of action, upon receipt of any information related to malfeasance on the part of Stratfor is to be reported to appropriate authorities.

    Taking point a to its next logical step, it would also be considered unethical of Anonymous to have hacked and published Stratfor’s private data in the first place.

    And if Anonymous did not hack and access Startfor’s data, how would anyone, Wikileaks or The Hindu, know that a unethical or unlawful action had been carried out? If they did not know at all, how would they report Stratfor to the authorities?

    Next, as to the question of reporting unlawful behaviour, would you also care to specify which authorities would be appropriate to report to? The US Government? But, in the case of the CIA, the US Government itself seems to have collaborated with and used Strafor’s services. What weight would a complaint by private individuals associated with Anonymous or Wikileaks carry in such a case?

  8. The author seems to be worried of himself or that his friends be exposed by wikileaks.The people who involve in stingy business oppose wikeleaks citing ethics,morality,freedom,democracy etc.The same bunch sits mum when the democracy is raped,freedom of common man is snatched away by goons,politicians.Wikileaks has exposed pseudo deplomacy of big brothers of the world.Also exposed hypocrisy of Indian politicians.The victims of Bhopal gas tragedy are still not compensated.The union carbide chief is never punished.Anderson was helped plea from then govt of India.Why didnt the author go and help the victims get justice?These constituional experts,pro-democracy bandwagons just become armchair commentators on every issue without giving any solutions to problem of common man .When Team Anna agitated against the corrupt govt of India,the same author had seriuos concern that democracy is being subverted by Anna.Interestingly ACORN didnt do anything to curb corruption last 6 decades.The author never cried or fought against corruption/goondaism of political babus.Even today he has no problem with corrupt system.He wants to live in the same system as a media boy to get his pennies by penning that suits the corrupt.ACORN is no equal or above Assange who defined a new dimension to journalism.He could have threatened govts and made money.He never did.I bet had it been Indian journos,they would have made money and burried the truth.ACORN sounds silly over his views against Assange.These dumb journos of India cant become an Assange.They are doing it ever since India got independence.Can you answer this simple question : Do you want truth be burried or exposed?

  9. I find one thing very distressing.

    It is unlikely that you could not understand the implications of your own argument, given that the flaw in your argument is so blatant and in-your-face.

    Therefore, I am forced to think about attributing some ulterior motive on your part in coming up with such an argument.

  10. Great post Acorn Pai.

    For the commenters who have raised questions let me give you an analogy.
    I think my neighbor is upto no good. He has a fancy car and a fancy watch. He wears fancy clothes. How did he get this? I am going to raid his house and search all his files, go through his wardrobe, because I am convinced he is doing something illegal. Since he is not going to make it easy for me to do this, I am going to break into his house at night preferably when he is away.

    I may be right. This neighbor may be filtering black money or maybe is a corrupt frontman, or maybe he is a child trafficker. I may find incriminating evidence when I search his house i.e break and enter.

    But I may also be wrong. He may just be a genius or a legitimate businessman doing well perfectly legally.

    Who am I to decide . If I have suspicions, I collect as much information as I can – *legally* and then inform the authorities. Only they have the power for a search warrant and arrest warrant. We dont even trust our police directly with this power. They need to get the warrant to do the search. This is how the system is supposed to work theoretically.

    Most world democratic constitutions grant a) the right to privacy b) innocent till proven guilty. This is not a mistake but allows citizens to live their life peacefully. Raid raj is not in anybodys interest. I

    Anonymous’s hacking is breaking and entering and is criminal. What they have on their hand is stolen property. They have broken the right to Stratfors privacy. Soon Anonymous might even hack your account or my account. Maybe they will find something, maybe they wont. But really who gave anonymous that right ? The answer is no one. Their actions are illegal.

    Stratfor is an easy target – its a vile organisation right. So was Sarah Palin. So was the US state department … That does not change the fact that crime was committed.

    Reporters work with different set of principles. Reporters gather facts by digging around (mostly legally – and some jugaad) and cultivating and talking to “sources” often insiders. These sources are given whistle blower protections by most countries. Why do these sources do what they do. Some have agendas. Some want the truth to come out. Some want the limelight. Overall this is fair game and is purely legal. To give an analogy, if my neighbors employee came to me and told me my neighbor is up to no good, that is completely different from breaking and entering into his house.

    We treat our government very very differently from citizens and corporations. Governments have a responsibility to us. So we want them to be transparent as possible. They are also all powerful, so we treat forced transparency in government. necessary even if evil. Generally only military and intelligence is given immunity from transparency. This is not a mistake but again carefully thought out. Which is why wikileaks actions are trudging a bad line. When Wikileaks revealed “Collateral murder”, they were celebrated. When they revealed state department secrets – they were not.

    I think as poetic justice, somebody should hack The Hindus emails and hand them to the “Times of India” in the interest of transparency. Somebody should also counter hack anonymous and reveal who these people are. Why should they get the luxury of privacy when thats what they steal from their targets ?

  11. So if I suspect The Hindu of being on the payroll of the Chinese Communist Party,
    Get your facts right Nitin :=) They were in the payroll of the KGB… for the Chinese commies, the Hindu works for free thanks to the generosity of N.Ram

    The Hindu’s real face was exposed when it co-operated with a fascist like Indira Gandhi during the Emergency…enough said. And please let us not pretend what WikiLeaks is all about – they are a leftist organization who attack their political enemies who are seen to be on the right…

    You would never see Wikileaks expose on what happened in CRU, East Anglia (Climate gate) or the NGO’s operating in Kudankulam in the pretext of safeguarding local interests or who their funding is coming from

    You would never hear from them on what even more vile Governments in Syria, Libya, Iran do or did to their citizens… neither will you hear our friends at the Hindu condemn these regimes either….. their selective indignation at Stratfor is truly revealing.

    Reminds me why i stopped reading the Hindu- they are dishonest leftists at their core while pretending to be some holier than thou newspaper.

  12. So Stratfor collecting information from shady ‘informants’ who themselves would be violating the laws of their country to sell this information is perfectly legal but Wikileaks and The Hindu publishing emails of Stratfor hacked by some other ‘informant’ is illegal? I can’t help but feel dissapointed at this drop in the quality of your posts Mr. Pai.

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