Leak Ethics and Hack Ethics

Many, many reasons to put some thought into the ethics of email hacks and leaks currently.

Firstly, is the current political trajectory of Wikileaks – in the past seen as somewhat anarchic and/or libertarian and now being cast as a tool of authoritarian strongman Vladimir Putin. In either case, it is worth asking is there a way of looking at the ethics of what Wikileaks has done beyond comparing the rightness/wrongness of the people who have either benefit or suffered as a consequence?

Secondly, Chelsea Manning remains imprisoned where she has been treated in a way that has been described as “cruel, inhuman and degrading“. Aside from the specific cruelties she has been subject too, should she anyway be pardoned by Obama before he leaves office?

Thirdly is the issue of the ethical culpability of the press or others (such as a rival political campaign) in exploiting revelations from an illegal leak or hack. Currently, the question of press coverage of the leaked DNC emails in the recent election and what electoral benefits the Trump campaign may have gained from those leaks.

There are some easy answers of course:

  • The Russian government shouldn’t be trying to manipulate US elections.
  • Whatever the rights or wrongs of Chelsea Manning’s acts, she should not be subject to cruel punishments.
  • Trump is deeply unethical on multiple levels regardless of whether he benefited from the DNC hacks.

But can we do better than these clearer issues?

Firstly there is an ethical distinction between leaks and hacks. Practically there are blurred lines between the two (e.g. an insider leaking a password to a third party who gains illegal access to a server) but we can still make a distinction between:

  • Somebody inside an organisation revealing confidential information to somebody outside an organisation.
  • Somebody outside an organisation breaking in (either physically or electronically) and stealing information.

The distinction is related to (but not identical to) the degree of discrimination in the information sought and released.

  • Somebody obtaining and disseminating specific information about an organisation, with some awareness of the information they are revealing.
  • Somebody obtaining and disseminating bulk information about an organisation, with little knowledge of what that information contains.

There is a sliding scale between the two.

Yet another pair of factors, and again on a scale, there is a question of personal risk.

  • The actor responsible for the leak or hack is acting at significant personal risk, either to their career or facing legal sanction or violence.
  • The actor responsible for the leak or hack is facing very limited risk and/or may gain financially or professionally from their actions.

Lastly, I’d make one more paired distinction.

  • The leak or hack is of a government body or agency.
  • The leak or hack is of a non-government body or agency, or of an individual.

In all cases, I’d contend that the default is an assumption of privacy. That is either a leak or a hack of data is, by default, morally wrong without some sort of mitigating factor. Put another way, non-consensual transparency purely for the sake of transparency is not sufficient justification for dissemination either leaked or hacked information BUT there may be times and occasions when other factors can justify both leaks and hacks (and indeed we know that such times and occasions do exist).

Roughly speaking, this is how I am seeing things:

  • Leaks are easier to justify ethically than hacks.
  • Targetted release of ‘stolen’ data is easier to justify ethically than dumps of data.
  • Acts done in the face of personal risk are easier to justify ethically than acts done with low risk or for personal gain.
  • The release of government data is easier to justify than the release of non-government data, which is easier to justify than the release of an individual’s data.

Beyond that questions of legitimate public interest and consequence matter.

Scenario 1: Donald Trump is President and a member of Whitehouse staff leaks a very specific email regarding the purchase of ‘adult diapers’. The leaked email is widely disseminated and there is much speculation that the President has some degree of incontinence.

I’d see Scenario 1 as unethical. Although it essentially government data (and hence publically owned data) and although it is targetted and a leak (forgive the pun) and the staff member runs the risk of being sacked (and maybe prosecuted) – it fails ethically because the public interest test is weak (yeah, there is an argument that the state of the President’s health is public business but this is a stretch) and the consequence is the bowel/bladder movements become fair game for judging the worthiness of politicians. Odds are that many effective US presidents have had less than functional bodies with regarded to toilet functions.

Scenario 2: An activist believes (because of persistent but inconclusive evidence) that a private company is knowingly involved in testing pharmaceuticals in third-world countries to avoid protocols on human experimentation. The activist manages to download encrypted backups of emails. Believing that there might be ‘smoking gun’ evidence in the emails that executives knew about the testing, but lacking the resources to decrypt and then examine all the emails, the activist releases all the data in an attempt to ‘crowd source’ an examination of the data.

I’d still lean to this being somewhat unethical action by the activist, but it would really rest on how reasonable their belief was that the company was knowingly engaged in unethical human experimentation.

Scenario 3: A lower level manager believes that the private company they work for is knowingly involved in testing pharmaceuticals in third-world countries to avoid protocols on human experimentation. The manager knows that there are emails that can prove this but doubts that people will believe a single email that anybody could have faked. Instead, they pass on to an activist group a download of encrypted backups of emails. The surrounding emails and the encryption scheme help verify that the emails are really from the company concerned.

I think this is more clearly ethical. The person is acting in the face of clear wrongdoing.

 

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24 comments

  1. RD F

    The Russian government shouldn’t be trying to manipulate US elections.

    Why?

    The US isn’t in a position to make a moral argument of this as a specific application of a general law, now is it?

    Like

      • thephantom182

        Nothing ever convinces you of anything, Aaron. Hysterical to see you arguing FOR a hacked election though, given your stance of a couple weeks ago.

        By the way, Camestros, remember the voter hacking thing, entire cemeteries showing up at the polls? Detroit. 50 votes in the box, 350+ counted. Guess who for. Then the Wisconsin recount, Trump came out with more.

        RDF at the begining: “The US isn’t in a position to make a moral argument…”

        Well, let’s think about that. USA hacks Bolivia or whatever to overthrow a Communist regime and institute -democracy- where the government doesn’t drag people away and murder them in the night.
        Russia hacks US election to… what? Overthrow the oldest functioning democracy in the world, and institute Trump Fascism, where the government drags people out of their homes and murders them. According to you guys, anyway.

        Singing: “One of thse tings is not like the other, one of these things just isn’t the same…”

        Incidentally Camestros, I am in Arizona right now. It is warm, lovely, there are fine looking women in short skirts. And, contrary to expectation for a Majority Trump state, so far I have seen zero homosexuals being dragged behind cars down the main street. Also zero trans-people being horse whipped, and zero uppity wimmin getting beat.

        Could be they’re working up to it slowly.

        I’m going shooting later in the week. Maybe the boyz at the range will clue me where the horse whippin’ and wimmin beatin’ is being held. I’ll send pics.

        Like

      • RD F

        Well, let’s think about that. USA hacks Bolivia or whatever to overthrow a Communist regime and institute -democracy- where the government doesn’t drag people away and murder them in the night.

        God, you’re an idiot.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augusto_Pinochet#Human_rights_violations

        “According to Peter Kornbluh in The Pinochet File, “routine sadism was taken to extremes” in the prison camps. The rape of women was common, including sexual torture such as the insertion of rats into genitals and “unnatural acts involving dogs.” Detainees were forcibly immersed in vats of urine and excrement. Beatings with gun butts, fists and chains were routine; one technique known as “the telephone” involved the torturer slamming “his open hands hard and rhythmically against the ears of the victim,” leaving the person deaf. At Villa Grimaldi, prisoners were dragged into the parking lot and had the bones in their legs crushed as they were run over with trucks. Some died from torture; prisoners were beaten with chains and left to die from internal injuries.[146] Following abuse and execution, corpses were interred in secret graves, dropped into rivers or the ocean, or just dumped on urban streets in the night. The body of the renowned Chilean singer, theatre director and academic Víctor Jara was found in a dirty canal “with his hands and face extremely disfigured” and with “forty-four bullet holes.”[147]

        The Pinochet regime is phantom’s idea of “democracy”

        Like

      • KR

        “Bolivia or whatever”? You know Phantom, your comments are consistently superficial, poorly-informed, factually wrong, and offensive in ways you don’t even appear to intend or understand. One of my past loves was, in fact, dragged out of his house and imprisoned and tortured by a US-backed South American military regime for a period of months then had to live clandestinely for over a decade. Your flippant dismissal of the murderous nature of those US-backed brutality gardens as “Bolivia or whatever” is appalling and offensive to the hundreds of thousands of people killed, disappeared, tortured and/or sent into exile. You can’t even be bothered to inform yourself before vomiting up your stupid assertions; they might be indistinguishable foreigners to you, not important enough even to get their histories and circumstances correct, but they are real flesh and blood friends to me, and human beings equally worthy of a good life on this planet, so you can take your self-righteous glib triumphalism and shove it.

        And for what it’s worth, if you can’t see racism, classism, and ethnic hatred in Arizona of all places, it says volumes about you, not about the actual conditions on the ground. JFC.

        Liked by 1 person

      • thephantom182

        “And for what it’s worth, if you can’t see racism, classism, and ethnic hatred in Arizona of all places, it says volumes about you, not about the actual conditions on the ground. JFC.”

        Well KR, I’m here, and you’re not. So perhaps it says something about you that you so easily dismiss an eye-witness report that doesn’t match your pre-conceived notion. While I am sure that someone, somewhere is being naughty, that is always true. But the type of organized, widespread, overt activity Trumpists are routinely accused of is conspicuously absent.

        This at a time when over a thousand people every day are sneaking across the border illegally. Border Patrol in Arizona isn’t even trying to collect them.

        Incidentally, some -idiot- above was raging on about Chile. While Pinochet was a bad dude, and there is plenty of evidence for that, please, for the love of God, compare Chile TODAY to A) Cuba and B) Venezuela. Then go back above to the comparison between the USA and the Russians, and then go bang your rock-hard head against the door frame to see if you can knock something loose in there. I swear, talking to you boys is like talking to a two year old pig.

        Incidentally the second, if you want to wallow in disgusting behavior and curse against an evil dictator, you should find out what MEXICO is doing, right now, to its own innocent citizens. Rape is the least of it.

        Still, I haven’t been to the range yet. Maybe BillyBob will hook me up with a good horse whippin’. Yeehaw.

        Like

      • RD F

        While Pinochet was a bad dude, and there is plenty of evidence for that, please, for the love of God, compare Chile TODAY to A) Cuba and B) Venezuela.

        That would be Chile under the Presidency of Michelle Bachelet – of the Socialist Party of Chile?

        The SAME GODDAMNED SOCIALIST PARTY that Pinochet overthrew with the encouragement of the US in order to murder tens of thousands of people?

        God, you’re an idiot.

        Like

      • KR

        Small minds like yours can only think in binaries. It is possible to reject Pinochet’s Chile and Chavez’s Venezuela And Duterte’s Philippines and Iran since 1979 and the many, many other forms of brutality gardens. And that of Brazil, the right-wing Senate of which has recently instituted a putsch, slashed social spending and passed a law that enshrines austerity for a generation by banning any increase to social services spending for twenty years. DJT is part of global zeitgeist that is going to take 30 years to work through. I’m not sure you really understand the monumental historic forces at work right now and just how categorically different they are from GWB-era republicans. In fact, you don’t strike me as a particularly clever or curious fellow, though you do enjoy riling up people smarter than you are and are quite good at it.

        For all you know, I just may be in Arizona myself along with many other snowbird bikers from the west, might even have tickets for the Oilers@Coyotes tonight.

        Like

      • thephantom182

        RD: “The SAME GODDAMNED SOCIALIST PARTY that Pinochet overthrew…”

        Now who’s lying, RD? The country still has Pinochet’s constitution, still has the same parties, they rule in coalitions, oh and most important, free and fair elections. Which Pinochet started in 1988. I wouldn’t know if the trains run on time, but their agricultural sector is doing very well.

        At the risk of repeating myself, compare and contrast with Cuba and Venezuela. And Mexico! And Nicaragua. And Columbia. And… you get the picture.

        KR said: “For all you know, I just may be in Arizona myself along with many other snowbird bikers from the west, might even have tickets for the Oilers@Coyotes tonight.”

        Or you might be a lying sack like RD above. But if you are in AZ today, maybe you can provide evidence of all this racism and hatred stuff you’re going on about. Where’s the horse whipping I can’t seem to find, KR?

        By the way. If voting for Hillary was the acme of decency as y’all are pretending, this map is for you:
        http://www.vividmaps.com/2016/12/trumpland-and-clinton-archipelago.html
        Going by that, there are very few safe places left in Amerika. Almost everybody everywhere is a slavering racist hateball like myself.

        Or, you know, not so much.

        Like

      • Aaron

        Nothing ever convinces you of anything, Aaron.

        Evidence convinces me. Neither you nor bormgans have provided any to support your claims. You two are consistent in that regard.

        Like

      • Aaron

        Going by that, there are very few safe places left in Amerika.

        Less than half of the population lives in the area covered by your map. Only about a third of the country’s GDP is produced in the areas covered by your map. “Trumpland” is a racist parasite living off of the actually productive portion of the country.

        Like

      • thephantom182

        Aaron said: “Less than half of the population lives in the area covered by your map.”

        Possibly, I haven’t checked. But, this is the genius of the Founding Fathers at work. A simple majority of the population, concentrated in two states, cannot seize control of the entire nation. According to the final count, without NYC and California, Trump won by three million votes.\

        By the way, Aaron. Has it occurred to you that your newfound enthusiasm for populism is nothing more or less than… wait for it…

        Slate voting.

        Like

      • Aaron

        According to the final count, without NYC and California, Trump won by three million votes.

        Sure, and if you exclude the former Confederate States, no Republican could ever win another national election. Do you have an actual point? At least California and New York never resorted to literal treason.

        By the way, Aaron. Has it occurred to you that your newfound enthusiasm for populism is nothing more or less than… wait for it…

        Slate voting.

        No. Because you seem not to actually understand what slate voting means. That’s not surprising: You seem not to know what a great many words mean.

        And who ever said I had a “newfound enthusiasm for populism”? I have a long-standing appreciation of the fact that the states most likely to vote Republican are the economic laggards of the country with less population than the parts of the country that vote Democratic and subsidize them.

        Like

  2. thephantom182

    “Secondly, Chelsea Manning remains imprisoned where she has been treated in a way that has been described as “cruel, inhuman and degrading“. Aside from the specific cruelties she has been subject too, should she anyway be pardoned by Obama before he leaves office?”

    If he does, the USA can forget ever having secure internal communication ever again. The difference between Manning and Snowden is large. Snowden revealed possibly illegal and certainly improper activity of the USA government, the NSA. Manning released secret documents detailing the activities of the US State Department and outed a bunch of spies. Those two things are not at all the same.

    Speaking of hacks, remember a while ago the -entire- US government employment database was lifted from the Whitehouse servers, and nobody in the media said much about it? Remember that? Measure that against the “Russian” hack of the DNC email, which is getting Extinction Event coverage.

    Like

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