Information Isn’t Always Meant to Be Free

Six years ago, WikiLeaks obtained and released a large raft of documents and emails obtained from the U.S. Department of State. Federal employees and contractors were forbidden from visiting the site. There are a couple of very good reasons why this injunction was put in place.

  • The information was classified. Accessing the documents amounted to reading information you are not allowed, by law, to review.
  • It’s stealing.

I know, I can hear some of you shouting, “BUT BUT BUT! It’s already out there! The news media is reporting on it! It’s already in the public domain!” There is a large segment of the internet-savvy public that believes all information must be free because the internet has established that sort of public utility/available-for-everyone mindset.

Here’s how the government memo put it:

“To the contrary, classified information, whether or not already posted on public websites or disclosed to the media remains classified, and must be treated as such by federal employees and contractors, until it is declassified by an appropriate U.S. Government authority,” the memo said.

That means, simply put, if you weren’t authorized to read it, you shouldn’t.

The memo was more lenient on reading about the documents. However, if you’re one of those people who, like me, would prefer to read the original content without bias or “filters,” you’re out of luck until such time as the government decides the genie is legally consider out of the bottle.

The ethics of using information from “data vigilantes”

I’ve decided to create the term “data vigilante” to describe folks like Eric Snowden, Julian Assange, Anonymous, and the rest of the community that is eager to use computers to share embarrassing or incriminating information about institutions they dislike or distrust.

I admit to being more conservative and moralistic on this matter than some folks, but then I’ve held a security clearance and take my responsibilities seriously. I’m the sort of person who doesn’t lie very well and so gets caught very easily. Plus, I do want to keep working and I don’t want to get fined tens of thousands of dollars or go to prison.

But really, here’s where I come down on this–even with the recent WikiLeaks release of documents from the Democratic National Committee–these sorts of “leaks” are testing the limits of permissible ethical behavior. For example, in the case of the “Panama Papers,” there was some dispute over whether the documents from the Mossack Fonseca law firm were leaked by an internal source or hacked by an external actor. So let’s consider the options here:

  • If an employee leaked the information, they’ve committed an ethical violation of a nondisclosure agreement (NDA) they inevitably signed as a condition of employment. NDAs are a standard part of technical communication. If they disclosed client information, they are subject to termination and fines from their employer as well as criminal charges and civil litigation from the damaged customer.
  • If an external actor (or actors) hacked the law firm’s database, they are guilty of stealing, and so are subject to criminal and potential civil penalties if they’re ever caught.

The law really doesn’t care about the contents of these thefts, the intentions of the actors, or the social outcomes that might result from releasing them to the public. And as I noted in my reaction to the State Department leaks, if you’re going into an organization with the idea of undermining them, you should probably consider another line of work. Unless you think you’ll be a) lucky and not get caught or b) happy living in exile like Eric Snowden.

Be a hero…within the law

Governments and businesses have secrets, some of them on the unsavory side because, like any group of people, they are subject to ethical lapses. If you are gung-ho to expose such wrongdoing, you are safer and better off finding legal, above-board ways to do so. You might not like the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA, pronounced “FOY-ah”) because it takes too long to get a response, but filing a FOIA request is legal, and the government is obliged, within reason, to respond to it. If they don’t, you can make honest political hay in the media about their lack of response. The point being, there are ways to bring down people you consider “the bad guys” that don’t involve compromising your ethics or the law. Give those some serious consideration before becoming a data vigilante.

As for the rest of us, whose news feeds have become filled with information that are products of these vigilantes, we need not feed that beast…but the temptation is always there, isn’t it?

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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