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ETHICS10 - Wikileaks and the Ethics of Whistleblowing
Ethical and Professional Computing
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
Julian Assange himself is a controversial character.
And his role in Wikileaks is important.
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
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.
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
Public perceptions on whistleblowing are mixed.
In some cases, such as wikileaks, support can be relatively broad.
The Legality of Whistleblowing
The ethics of whistleblowing have increasingly become a
Largely as a result of the media attention focused on Julian Assange
In many jurisdictions, whistleblowing has protected status
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.
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.
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
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.
Part of the problem with anonymous testimony is that it cannot
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.
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
At what point does a personal conversation (conducted ‘off the
record’ between friends) become suitable for public
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”
Wikileaks is significant for several reasons.
The technology used to facilitate whistleblowing.
The crowd-sourced nature of disclosure.
The penetration into the public consciousness.
‘Our goal is to bring important news and information to the public’
The US says:
Wikileaks is tantamount to a terrorist organisation.
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
Operates on a ‘cell’ basis.
One cell goes down, another can be switched on.
Technology of Wikileaks
When documents are at risk, they are released in full as
Redundancy of storage ensures information never dies.
However, this is done on an opt-in basis and does not protect
Difficulty in scaling up.
Especially during moments of intense public interest.
‘The more information we get, the harder it is to store and protect’
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
How authoritative is the material
How important is the material?
Not a pure ‘wiki’ model.
Volunteer editors then comb through large document caches.
These get published on a scheduled basis.
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
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.
The Church of Scientology
‘The collected secret bibles of Scientology’
Internet Censorship Lists
Bilderberg group meeting reports
9/11 Pager Messages
State department cable leaks.
From Bradley Manning
Afghan War Diaries
Iraq War Logs
Diplomatic Cable Release
Guantanamo Bay Files
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
Public perceptions of him are extremely mixed.
Is he a modern day whistleblower exposing corruption in the
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?
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?
Is all of this for the bad?
Guantanamo Bay Files
Church of Scientology
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
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.
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?
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
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?
Whistleblowing is not a modern phenomenon.
But Wikileaks has brought it firmly into the public consciousness on a
In the best cases, whistle-blowing is in the public interest and
discloses information for which the public has a genuine need to
In the worse cases, it is dangerous and titillating.
Editorial control means that we cannot necessarily trust we see all
We cannot know the agendas of those leaking information if they