Russell Brunelle (russellb) wrote,
Russell Brunelle


Although I certainly believe there is a place for a trusted internet-based service which publishes anonymously-leaked documents, and which furthermore has the technical savvy necessary to ensure the confidentiality of its sources, I believe any organization taking on this responsibility has heavy burdens to:

  1. Take care not to publish forged (or even questionable) documents at all
  2. Take care not to abuse its position of trust by publishing embarrassing private material of no significant public interest
  3. Redact material from otherwise valid documents which would put innocent people at risk or violate their privacy [Note: this is critical, as the source may not be in a position to judge what should be redacted, and receiving the original material unredacted may help authenticate it]

WikiLeaks states that it publishes only "material of ethical, political and historical significance," which is broad enough to encompass almost anything: as far as I can tell, the only way to judge what WikiLeaks' journalistic and privacy standards may be is to examine what it has chosen to publish. For that purpose, the following material (all of which WikiLeaks continues to publish) is illuminating:

  1. Almost certainly fake documents purporting to show that Steve Jobs is HIV positive. I believe that if WikiLeaks had any doubt as to the authenticity of these documents, it shouldn't have published them. On the other hand, if WikiLeaks was certain these documents were authentic, and furthermore felt there was some legitimate journalistic reason to publish them which was compelling enough to justify this gross violation of Mr. Jobs' privacy, then at least WikiLeaks should have redacted Mr. Jobs' social security number, which is plainly printed on these documents. I can see absolutely no excuse for this, and believe this one choice speaks volumes about the degree to which WikiLeaks considers "personal privacy" to be any concern whatsoever.
  2. University of Goettingen student records. To judge by the explanation on WikiLeaks, someone figured out how to get student records (including names and e-mail addresses) out of a poorly-configured computer run by this university, so naturally WikiLeaks agreed to publish a sampling of the stolen data, along with instructions on how to get the rest of it. There is nothing unusual about this university, and there is no claim that any of the students are public figures. Apparently WikiLeaks just thought it was cool that someone managed to do this, which once again speaks volumes about its seemingly complete lack of interest in personal privacy: apparently WikiLeaks doesn't even consider privacy any kind of concern when nobody involved is a public figure, and furthermore it will publish such information when there is zero newsworthiness in the underlying situation.
  3. Digital signing key for Texas Instruments calculators. Basically, having this means that you can take certain models of Texas Instruments calculators and install your own operating system on them. Texas Instruments did not want this key published, but of course WikiLeaks continues to publish it. To me, this document isn't news in any normal sense of the word, since obviously a key was being used even if nobody knew what it was; frankly, this childish nonsense even seems to fail the broad "material of ethical, political and historical significance" standard which WikiLeaks had set for itself.
  4. David Irving e-mails. One thing which WikiLeaks is a bit notorious for doing is publishing material obtained from hacked e-mail accounts. As far as I can tell, the standard seems to be if that if WikiLeaks doesn't like someone, and a hacker manages to steal that person's e-mail, WikiLeaks will blithely publish all of it, without regard to whether any individual message has ethical, political, or historical significance, and additionally without regard to whether this violates the privacy of any third parties corresponding with that person. There are dozens of examples of this all over WikiLeaks, though here I've only picked one. Please understand that I have no particular respect for the "David Irving" whose mail was published in this document: he'd be a very unpleasant man, and a serious bigot, even if he weren't a Holocaust denier. What I am questioning is whether it was necessary for WikiLeaks to violate the privacy of everyone who corresponded with Mr. Irving, including publishing the e-mail address of (apparently) everyone he ever wrote to, particularly given that some of those people may have no sympathy for his cause: in some cases, they might simply be other journalists trying to infiltrate and get a story. To me, this kind of indiscriminate (and frankly lazy) behavior runs afoul of both the second and the third of the three concerns I listed at the beginning of this post, and brings into question what standards WikiLeaks will apply when sources send them material of a far more sensitive nature.
  5. Initiation ritual for the Sigma Chi fraternity. Clearly, WikiLeaks really enjoys publishing the private initiation rituals of common college fraternities and sororities: it has done this for Alpha Kappa Alpha, Pi Kappa Alpha, Alpha Epsilon Pi, Sigma Phi Epsilon, Alpha Gamma Delta, Alpha Kappa Alpha, Alpha Phi Alpha, Alpha Sigma Tau, Delta Sigma Theta, Kappa Sigma, Lambda Chi Alpha, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, and Sigma Chi (as linked to here). In almost none of these cases did WikiLeaks even bother trying to articulate a single reason why the material it was publishing was newsworthy, and furthermore WikiLeaks categorizes this material under "cults and religious organizations," which is obviously absurd. Granted, I didn't read through all of this material (I frankly just had time for a random sampling of pages from a few of them), but I didn't succeed in finding anything controversial, and I'm left with the distinct impression that WikiLeaks sees no problem with violating privacy not just for weak but otherwise legitimate reasons, but for no better reason than personal amusement.

Although I have focused here on some of the most troublesome documents which WikiLeaks has chosen to publish, which together suggest a troubling lack of standards, I do not deny that WikiLeaks has published a good deal of material which genuinely is of public interest. What I do question is whether the generally shoddy manner in which WikiLeaks seems to be managed is worthy of the gravity of some of the material with which it has been entrusted, and I hope that I can look forward to standards in internet-based anonymous leak services improving over time, perhaps through respected newspapers such as The New York Times or The Guardian setting up their own online anonymous submission services.
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