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ETHICS10 - Wikileaks and the Ethics of Whistleblowing

An overview of issues related to whistleblowing. Intended for computing students as part of a professional and ethical issues module.

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ETHICS10 - Wikileaks and the Ethics of Whistleblowing

  1. 1. + Wikileaks and Whistleblowing Ethical and Professional Computing Michael Heron
  2. 2. + Introduction  Have you heard about Wikileaks?  Of course you have.  Whistleblowing has become one of the ‘great journalistic activities’ of the 21st century.  John Pilger has said ‘The pursuit of Julian Assange is an assault on freedom and a mockery of journalism’  However, Wikileaks has its many detractors.  Several politicians have called for Wikileaks to be branded as a terrorist organisation.  Julian Assange himself is a controversial character.  And his role in Wikileaks is important.
  3. 3. + Wikileaks  Wikileaks has, at its heart, Julian Assange.  "the heart and soul of this organisation, its founder, philosopher , spokesperson, original coder, organizer, financier, and all the rest.  "First of all, let’s give Julian Assange a chance to make his case first:  ileaks.html  Wikileaks has created an environment in which the effect of whistle-blowing can be maximised.  And in the process has resulted in whistle blowing becoming very much part of the modern zeitgeist.
  4. 4. + Whistleblowing  A ‘whistle blower’ is an individual who takes it upon themselves to release privileged information into a more public forum.  This may simply be a small scale escalation, such as a senior manager providing minutes to department heads.  It is most often used when the intent of the revelation is to reveal dishonesty, misconduct or illegal activities.  Revealing that individuals are conspiring to act against their legal or ethical obligations.  Public perceptions on whistleblowing are mixed.  In some cases, such as wikileaks, support can be relatively broad.
  5. 5. + The Legality of Whistleblowing  The ethics of whistleblowing have increasingly become a mainstream issue.  Largely as a result of the media attention focused on Julian Assange and Wikileaks.  In many jurisdictions, whistleblowing has protected status under law.  In the UK, we have the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1999  In the US there is a complex and often contradictory network of enabling and disabling legislation.  It’s okay in some situations, not okay in others.  The complexity of the legal system is one of the reasons why many whistle-blowing incidents are anonymous.
  6. 6. + Important Whistleblowers  There are a large number of important whistleblowers.  Peter Buxton, Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments  Mark Felt, Deep Throat  Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers  Cynthia Cooper, Worldcom  Sherron Watkins, Enron  Katharine Gun, Iraq War (2003)  Paul Moore, HBOS  Clive Ponting, Belgrano sinking  In all these cases, the individuals exposed misconduct that was illegal, immoral, or unconscionable.
  7. 7. + The Impact of Whistleblowing  The impact of a whistle blower can be significant.  Deep Throat, in his interactions with Woodward and Bernstein, helped to bring down Nixon.  Manning via Wikileaks is credited as a major catalyst for the 2010 Arab Spring.  They can bring to light important information that would otherwise be difficult to access.  They help address informational asymmetry.  However, in doing so they also often violate many moral and ethical principles that we hold generally true.
  8. 8. + Anonymous Information  Part of the problem with anonymous testimony is that it cannot be validated.  We do not know who he/she is.  We do not know the veracity of his or her information.  We do not know the full context of his or her information.  This anonymity provides a protection against potential reprisals, but it also dilutes the value of the information.  We don’t know if the whistleblower has some kind of professional code of ethics that requires discretion.  A lawyer?  A therapist?
  9. 9. + Confidentiality  Several possible identities for anonymous informants cast their revelations in a less favourable light:  Was this hearsay learned from a patient as a therapist?  Revealed to a priest in confession?  Revealed to a doctor when the stress became too much?  Revealed to a company lawyer in the interests of full disclosure?  At what point does the harm to an individual become an acceptable cost for making a disclosure of confidential information?  At what point does a personal conversation (conducted ‘off the record’ between friends) become suitable for public consumption?
  10. 10. + Wikileaks  As computer people, Wikileaks is an especially important development in the narrative of whistleblowing.  Like most things in our module, the technology didn’t invent whistleblowing but it enabled it to a previously impossible degree.  Some of their first revelations were shocking, which drove traffic to the site.  Some may find the following footage to be disturbing:   This footage was published in 2010.  As a designated website called “Collateral Murder”
  11. 11. + Wikileaks  Wikileaks is significant for several reasons.  The technology used to facilitate whistleblowing.  The crowd-sourced nature of disclosure.  The penetration into the public consciousness.  Wikileaks says:  ‘Our goal is to bring important news and information to the public’  The US says:  Wikileaks is tantamount to a terrorist organisation.
  12. 12. + Technology of Wikileaks  Wikileaks has many things it must deal with technically.  Continual DDOS attacks  The risk of the site being closed down by governments.  Difficulty in receiving donations.  They are understandably secretive about how it all works.  However, some details are known.  Encrypted information is routed through ‘friendly’ legal jurisdictions.  Operates on a ‘cell’ basis.  One cell goes down, another can be switched on.
  13. 13. + Technology of Wikileaks  When documents are at risk, they are released in full as encrypted torrents.  Redundancy of storage ensures information never dies.  However, this is done on an opt-in basis and does not protect internal information.   Difficulty in scaling up.  Especially during moments of intense public interest.  ‘The more information we get, the harder it is to store and protect’
  14. 14. + Crowed Source Whistleblowing  Individuals who have confidential information can submit it anonymously through the site or via email.  A group of volunteer editors them analyse the leaks for publishability.  How authoritative is the material  How important is the material?  Not a pure ‘wiki’ model.  Wiki-Minus  Volunteer editors then comb through large document caches.  These get published on a scheduled basis.
  15. 15. + Wikileaks and Editorial Control  As soon as editorial control is exercised, bias comes in.  This is unavoidable, no matter how professional someone is.  One may choose to publish information raw without commentary.  But in order to do that, other information had to not be published.  There’s only so much  Space in a newspaper  Attention span in readers  Time in a day  Editorial control is exercised over leaks.  Ensuring the ‘best’ are published.
  16. 16. + Significant Wikileaks  Assassination attempts  The Church of Scientology  ‘The collected secret bibles of Scientology’  BNP Membership  ‘Climategate’  Internet Censorship Lists  Bilderberg group meeting reports
  17. 17. + Significant Wikileaks  9/11 Pager Messages  State department cable leaks.  From Bradley Manning  Afghan War Diaries  Iraq War Logs  Diplomatic Cable Release  Guantanamo Bay Files
  18. 18. + Bradley Manning  The case of Bradley Manning is significant both for its timeliness and the impact.  He is the primary source of much of the wikileaks diplomatic cable archive.  Public perceptions of him are extremely mixed.  Is he a modern day whistleblower exposing corruption in the diplomatic ranks?  If he a traitor exposing personal backchannels and informal gossip to those who might do harm?  Is he a scapegoat for a corrupt system?  Did he endanger lives?
  19. 19. + The Ethics of Wikileaks  There is no doubt that much dark material has come to light as a result of Wikileaks.  Is all of this for the good?  9/11 Pagers  Climategate  BNP membership  Is all of this for the bad?  Diplomatic cables  Guantanamo Bay Files  Church of Scientology
  20. 20. + The Ethics of Wikileaks  I make no judgement here on any individual release.  I instead ask the following questions for each release:  Who benefited from the release of the information?  Did the public have a right to know?  Was anyone harmed by the release of the information?  Was the world situation improved or damaged by the release of the information?  And I ask the following general questions:  Is it okay to hide information if its disclosure will risk lives?  To what extent to governments and corporations have a right and a responsibility to keep secrets?  Discuss in small groups.
  21. 21. + Julian Assange  Julian Assange himself is a very controversial character.  Currently under siege in the Ecuador embassy.  Accused of running a cult of personality   Internal disputes within Wikileaks   Accused of illegal sexual misconduct in Sweden.  Extradition to Sweden is being vigorously opposed.  Supporters seem to believe that the charges are politically motivated.  Does this make a difference?  To what extent does motivation come to play in ‘forgiving’ offences?
  22. 22. + Whistleblowing and You  When do you have a responsibility to whistle-blow?  When you have exhausted all internal routes to resolve the issues?  When the public has a demonstrated right to know?  When disclosure can be made safely?  Do your motivations matter in this?  Does it matter if you benefit from disclosure in some way?  Does it matter if you’re a dislikeable character if your information is correct? 
  23. 23. + The Five Ethical tests  Kallman and Grillo (1996) propose five informal tests for determining if an action is ethical:  Would you tell your mother?  Would you tell your story on television?  Does it make you feel bad for having done it?  Would you like if it had been done to you?  Would you be able to make a good pitch as to why it was the right thing to do?  To this we can add:  Are you legally able to make a disclosure?  Are you forbidden by a code of ethics from making a disclosure?
  24. 24. + Conclusion  Whistleblowing is not a modern phenomenon.  But Wikileaks has brought it firmly into the public consciousness on a persistent basis.  In the best cases, whistle-blowing is in the public interest and discloses information for which the public has a genuine need to know.  In the worse cases, it is dangerous and titillating.  Editorial control means that we cannot necessarily trust we see all the information.  We cannot know the agendas of those leaking information if they remain anonymous.

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  • FairujZahin

    Aug. 22, 2017

An overview of issues related to whistleblowing. Intended for computing students as part of a professional and ethical issues module.


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