Hacker Ethics in a World of Online Leaks

Regardless of who wins, this presidential election campaign has highlighted a series of data leaks with personal information about candidates that will be remembered far after voting is over. New norms are developing regarding online privacy and radical transparency that question the boundaries of hacker ethics in our globally connected world. Many are asking: Will personal privacy even survive in the years to come?

by / October 23, 2016
credit: shutterstock

Can hackers be stopped from leaking sensitive personal conversations? Are foreign nation-states using cyberattacks against America to disrupt our political system? Is democracy threatened? Is the source of leaks even important if the data is valuable enough for the "public good?" Who are the "good guys" and who are the "bad guys" when it comes to global hackers? What role does mainstream media play in encouraging data leaks? Can our online laws be enforced? Where next in cyberspace?

These are just a few of the very difficult questions that are emerging in 2016. And the answers seem more far off than ever.

To the average American on the street, our global cyberdefenses have failed. If "the other side" wants (almost) any data bad enough, some groups always seems to emerge to release the data for public consumption.

While political pundits from the right, left and center are already arguing over whether the ends justify the means with these leaks, new videos, emails, confidential speeches, voice recordings, and more are released on a regular basis. The result is that our next U.S. president will certainly take his/her oath of office in January 2017 with less good will and citizen trust that any other U.S. leader in history.

It seems as if Pandora’s Box has been open and data breaches involving confidential conversations between politicians and other famous people will become a regular piece of most public discourse moving forward. For some, WikiLeaks and DC Leaks are heroes that are to be celebrated. Their actions are no different than The New York Times getting leaked copies of Trump’s tax returns.

To others, these online criminals must be brought to justice, and the U.S. must retaliate against foreign nation states or groups that feed the anti-secrecy "monster." If you have this perspective, these events threaten to lead to the “unraveling of our public sphere.”

Digging Deeper on Global Leak Trends

This past week, there have been many thought-provoking stories published about these leaked (or hacked) data issues. For example:

Nieman Reports: When Is it Ethical to Publish Stolen Data?

Kirtley adds that there is an ethical distinction, as well as a legal one: “For me, it always comes down to a balance between the value of the information to the public interest as compared to the harm that would be caused to the individual by publication.” Gawker’s Biddle believes the idea of harm to individuals can be overstated, not least by those whose embarrassing secrets are revealed by stolen or leaked documents. “I think the ‘Well, the Pentagon Papers, sure, but Sony …’ argument is silly,” he says. “Leaked data doesn’t have to be world historical to be worthwhile. How high we want to apply the public interest test is probably more a matter of squeamishness.”

“It’s the job of editors to publish, not to keep secrets.”

The Guardian (UK): If Trump leaks are OK and Clinton leaks aren't, there's a problem

The 2016 presidential campaign isn’t turning out to be the Facebook election, as some people have dubbed it. More than anything else, it’s now the Election Dominated By Leaks.

In the final month of the race, the Clinton and Trump campaigns’ main attack points now revolve around several major leaks that have put their opposing candidate on the defensive. Both campaigns or their supporters have been actively encouraging leaks about the other side, while claiming leaks involving them are either illegitimate or illegal.

Either way, it’s yet another example of why leaks are very much in the public interest when they can expose how presidential candidates act behind closed doors — and the motivations of the leakers shouldn’t prevent news organizations from reporting on them. ...

Leaks sometimes make the subject of them uncomfortable, and increasingly large leaks of private emails raise questions about internet security and privacy. But ultimately we should ask ourselves: would we rather reporters not cover what politicians are doing behind closed doors?

Just Security: Mass Hacks of Private Email Aren’t Whistleblowing, They Are at Odds With It.

The world of 2016 is one where leaking a lot is much easier than leaking a little….

We have experienced leaks by U.S. Army soldier Chelsea Manning to WikiLeaks, and NSA contractor Edward Snowden to the Guardian and other papers, containing tranches of documents so large that neither Manning nor Snowden could be in a position to know exactly what information they were compromising as they did it. Both were promptly identified by the authorities. Manning became known because she had confided her actions to an online acquaintance who turned her in. Snowden was open about what he did after he had flown to Hong Kong, and then Moscow, to avoid arrest.

Fast forward to the fall of 2016. A site called DC Leaks published a cache of former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s email — apparently over two years of his Gmail account’s inbox and outbox up to this summer. Last week the U.S. government formally placed blame on the Russian government for these leaks and others like it, saying that Russia’s motive is to influence the outcome of the U.S. presidential election.

The answer to a surveillance state is not to applaud private hacking of individuals, and we shouldn’t shape our view of a hack depending on whose side in a political conflict is being disadvantaged. Whether it was Sarah Palin’s AOL account, Colin Powell’s Gmail, or those of people we haven’t heard of, the impact on them as people is real and unfortunate. When we lose our empathy for that, we contribute to the unraveling of our public sphere.

Theweek.com: Marco Rubio to Republicans: Stop talking about Clinton's leaked emails

While Trump and the RNC have been using the contents of the private communications to their advantage, Rubio said he wouldn't touch them with a 10-foot pole — and advised others to follow his lead. "As our intelligence agencies have said, these leaks are an effort by a foreign government to interfere with our electoral process and I will not indulge it," Rubio told ABC News. "Further, I want to warn my fellow Republicans who may want to capitalize politically on these leaks: Today it is the Democrats. Tomorrow it could be us."

Rubio has vowed he "will not discuss any issue that has become public solely on the basis of WikiLeaks." 

My View

There are many political experts on the right and left that think that this election cycle has forever changed America for a diverse set of reasons. While there is always distrust between Republicans and Democrats, there is no doubt that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both struggle to be trusted by many in their own parties. It is hard to see how these leaks will stop in 2017 and beyond — regardless of who becomes our next president.

But beyond politics, the events that have unfolded in 2016 point to a growing trend of “hacking for a cause” that will impact every area of life. It is hard to know what's going through the mind of global hacktivists. There are a new set of definitions and diverse motives that are merging with new technology to bring about global change for opposing causes.

I described this trend in detail in an article for Tech Crunch last year. Here's an excerpt:

There are plenty of organized criminals still seeking to rob banks and get sensitive company secrets for competitive gain. But this new “hacking for a cause” trend, with motives beyond stealing to enrich oneself, will be a significant “game-changer” for society. The implications are as vast as the number of social causes and beliefs that exist.

For example, some common causes that Philanthropedia lists include: violence against women, climate change, criminal justice and access to healthy foods — to name just a few.

You can add access to the political agendas of the left, right and center. Infiltration of an individual’s religious leanings. Intrusion of a family run company’s opinions regarding abortion or gay rights. Subversion to the trillions of files, pictures and recordings used for a limitless number of topics, such as divorce proceedings.

You begin to see where I’m going. Bottom line, everyone has causes they champion, information they want and certain data that is just beyond their grasp. The new thinking is becoming: What content do I wish I had? How will I get it?  Who can acquire it for me?

Why should we fear this trend? There is an evolving definition of right and wrong regarding hacking.

For example, I may think that Edward Snowden stealing NSA records was wrong. However, I may also agree that the information he disclosed was valuable to society to help protect online privacy. Although I do not believe that the ends justify the means, millions of Americans now believe that Snowden was a hero. In their view, the ends do justify the means in his case. Bottom line, they think his illegal actions were justified.

So where to next with hacker leaks? What causes will be helped and hurt? Time will only tell.

But I will leave you with this quote on leaks from Evgeny Morozov:

“As leakers take great risks in releasing information, assuring them that they are not sacrificing themselves in vain and that their leaks would have public consequences would most likely encourage more people to leak.”