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Murdoch's Hacking Is Despicable, But Is WikiLeaks Any Better?

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"The Guardian" has been rightfully praised for its role in exposing the "News of the World" hacks. In a world often concerned that the shift to digital has sounded the death knell of "accountability journalism," it's refreshing to see that it's still going strong.

The scandal has raised plenty of questions about the ethics of checkbook journalism, the cozy ties between the government and the media, and the role of relying on shady intermediaries like private investigators. What it hasn't done is brought up much discussion about the ethics of hacking.

We live in an age of hacking. The bar for expertise has been lowered. Week in, week out, some corporation is being hacked by someone or other. Credit-card numbers are lost; unencrypted passwords are posted online. Kids with virtually no technical knowledge can take part in a disabling distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack or play around with malicious bits of code. For many hacking has become like a video game: anyone can do it and it is still abstract enough to destroy any empathy the hacker might have for the victim.

The moral high ground "The Guardian," "The New York Times," and much of the liberal press have taken on #hackgate would make sense to me, were it not for their cooperation with WikiLeaks.

(This isn't meant to be a shrill exercise in moral equivalency, to somehow excuse the terrible things the "News of the World" has done, but rather an attempt to wrangle with the ethics and morality of hacking, a subject I have covered on this blog.)

The official WikiLeaks line is that they don't hack -- rather they are just a repository for information, a safe digital haven for leakers. That's all very well, but how can news organizations working with WikiLeaks be so sure that their documents haven't been obtained by hacking?

There have been plenty of accusations and reports that WikiLeaks -- run by Julian Assange, who is after all a convicted hacker -- isn't just sitting around waiting for leaks but is actively going after them.

In Raffi Khatchadourian's "New Yorker" profile in June last year, it was claimed that WikiLeaks had snooped on traffic to get its first big cache of documents. From "Wired":

WikiLeaks, the controversial whistleblowing site that exposes secrets of governments and corporations, bootstrapped itself with a cache of documents obtained through an internet eavesdropping operation by one of its activists, according to a new profile of the organization's founder.

The activist siphoned more than a million documents as they traveled across the internet through Tor, also known as "The Onion Router," a sophisticated privacy tool that lets users navigate and send documents through the internet anonymously.

This was subsequently denied by Assange, who said that the "New Yorker" and "Wired" got it wrong. 

Then in January of this year, there were new allegations that WikiLeaks had snooped on photo- and file-sharing networks to gain information: 

Tiversa Inc., a company based in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania, has evidence that WikiLeaks, which has said it doesn’t know who provides it with information, may seek out secret data itself, using so-called “peer-to-peer” networks, Chief Executive Officer Robert Boback claimed. He said the government is examining evidence that Tiversa has turned over.

(UPDATE: A reader on Twitter, @M_Poulet, points to a piece in "Forbes" where Tiversa seems to backtrack a bit. Certainly not a smoking gun, but still very hazy.)

Of course scraping peer-to-peer networks for rogue files isn't perhaps as serious as hacking into a dead teenager's phone, but the methods, if true, are still pretty dubious. (It is still accessing someone else's information without their knowledge.) And these are just the methods that have surfaced, although denied by WikiLeaks.

Above all, it does underscore the point about intermediaries and whether journalists have done enough due diligence to ensure that they have obtained their information by legitimate means -- that applies to grubby private investigators that leech off Fleet Street but also to hackers-turned-international-freedom-fighters like Assange. Read anything about Assange and it's clear that his own organization's accountability is the least of his concerns.

The question then is whether we are against hacking in journalism per se, or whether, despite its illegality, it depends on who the targets are. If the latter, the even thornier question is whether exposing information obtained by hacking can be seen as being in the public interest.

At Wired State, blogger Cathy Fitzpatrick is unequivocal:

It truly boggles the mind, how many people are plussing up the Google+ waves with puffed-up chests in indignation about what Murdoch's paper has been caught doing who were never, ever available to utter a word of criticism about WikiLeaks, doing the exact same thing (and, arguably, with more far-reaching damages to more people and governments around the world).

To my mind, they are very similar; hacking is wrong, unethical, and criminal in both cases and should be prosecuted, and yes, in both cases, there is not a direct relationship to actual hacking, but intermediaries are used. That doesn't sanitize it in either case.

Hackers are a hard bunch to define. It is a loaded term that means different things to different people: from the ultimate dark hat living in the shadows and stealing credit-card numbers to the white hat exposing security holes so the rest of us can live a more secure life online. Hacking is about the joy of code. It is about taking things apart to understand how they are built and how they can be built better. But while every religion has its aesthetes, it also has its pedophile priests.

We often judge hackers by who they hack. If they hack someone we don't sympathize with, we tend to see them as heroes, or at least confused teenagers, or pranksters, who are only doing it to get noticed and land a job at Google. If, however, we might sympathize with the target of the hack, then the hacker is an unscrupulous and malicious black hat, corrupted by money or power. Our hackers are hacktivists; your hackers are hacks.

Now another report has surfaced at "The Nation" talking about a "brain room" at Fox News, a "special-security-clearance-only bunker" for phone hacking. Sounds scary, right? Hackers able to access any information, working outside standard journalistic procedure, with little transparency or accountability. Sounds a bit like WikiLeaks.

Tags: wikileaks, assange, Murdoch, hacking

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by: Fluxorum
July 18, 2011 18:32
In the interest of complete information provision you might want to let your readers know that Tiversa's claims that WikiLeaks hacked for secrets were debunked months ago.

http://blogs.forbes.com/andygreenberg/2011/01/20/no-smoking-gun-in-hints-that-wikileaks-actively-stole-data/?

http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/02/05/941513/-Bloombergs-WikiLeaks-P2P-trawling-accusation-baseless

However, that would punch a giant hole into your argument, wouldn't it? Why let facts get in the way of a good story?
In Response

by: Luke Allnutt
July 18, 2011 19:26
I don't think that changes the argument. Tiversa backtracked, but it certainly wasnt debunked. Still very hazy. WikiLeaks' methods and means are shady, yet many media outlets are prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt. We wouldn't give Murdoch the benefit of the doubt (and rightly so) so why not Assange?
In Response

by: Fluxorum
July 18, 2011 19:47
If you were aware that "Tiversa backtracked", why didn't you include this in your article? Because it undermines the strength of your argument?

"Why not give Murdoch the benefit of the doubt?". Perhaps because Rebekah Brooks (former News International chief executive) admitted to having paid police for information to the House of Commons culture select committee? Last time I checked, that was defined as corruption (i.e. a criminal offence).
In Response

by: Fluxorum
July 18, 2011 19:59
Clicked "send" too soon on my previous post:

If you were aware that "Tiversa backtracked", why didn't you include this in your article? Because it undermines the strength of your argument?

"Why not give Murdoch the benefit of the doubt?". Perhaps because Rebekah Brooks (former News International chief executive) admitted to having paid police for information to the House of Commons culture select committee? Last time I checked, that was defined as corruption (i.e. a criminal offence).

So far Wikileaks has not been accused of any criminal offences, so perhaps that's why they are a more likely candidate for "benefit of the doubt"?
In Response

by: Luke Allnutt
July 19, 2011 09:27
@Fluxorum Thanks for your comments. I did include an update. I wouldn't if I thought it undermines the strength of my argument. I said "We wouldn't give Murdoch the benefit of the doubt (and rightly so)". No defense of Murdoch here. Just think WikiLeaks is given a free pass as to where it gets its info from.

And what of the point Catherine Fitzpatrick raises in the comments here about WikiLeaks release of the 9/11 pager messages? Those messages were hacked by someone and then media ran with them. I'm asking (not rhetorically) how you think that is different to what Murdoch may or may not have done with 9/11 victims?
In Response

by: Fluxorum
July 19, 2011 18:58
@Luke Allnutt

This is a response to your second reply. As there is no "Reply" button displayed in the text box, I'm posting it here. Maybe the moderator can sort it out?

Point 1: "@Fluxorum Thanks for your comments. I did include an update. I wouldn't if I thought it undermines the strength of my argument."

My question was why you didn't include Tiversa's backtrack in your original article. I do believe that your argument would be weakened, had you included the fact that the Tiversa allegations were made entirely without evidence. In fact Tiversa's chief executive Robert Boback is quoted as saying:

“What we saw were people who were searching [computers connected to filesharing networks] for .xls, .doc, .pdf, and searching for those generic terms over and over again,” says Boback. “They had multiple Swedish IPs. Can I say that those are WikiLeaks? I can’t. But we can track the downloads of people doing that, and a short time after those files were downloaded, they’re listed on WikiLeaks.”

So, Tiversa provided *no* evidence that WikiLeaks carried out hacking. Some hackers may have submitted hacked materials to WikiLeaks, but the website’s well-documented anonymous submission system would have made it impossible for WikiLeaks to know the source, be it a whistleblower or a hacker. Should WikiLeaks therefore reject all submissions just in case they originated in hacking?

Point 2: “I said "We wouldn't give Murdoch the benefit of the doubt (and rightly so)". No defense of Murdoch here. Just think WikiLeaks is given a free pass as to where it gets its info from." “

Because of its anonymous submission system WikiLeaks cannot know if information comes from whistleblowers or hackers (apart from cases where alleged sources seem to have outed themselves). Not knowing where the info originates is part and parcel of the WikiLeaks setup, so asking them to guarantee that information was not obtained by hacking would be facile. Media partners who use WikiLeaks materials must make their peace with this fact and decide whether the “public interest” overrides the *potentially* dubious origin of the information. If you compare “personal messages left on a dead girl’s phone” with “information about government wrongdoings as vetted by MSM journalists” I would argue that that the “public interest” question is clear. BTW, much investigative journalism is based on illegally obtained information. I personally can’t see the difference between WikiLeaks information (even *if* it came from hacking, for which there is *no* evidence) and the data which exposed the UK MP expenses scandal.

Point 3: “And what of the point Catherine Fitzpatrick raises in the comments here about WikiLeaks release of the 9/11 pager messages? Those messages were hacked by someone and then media ran with them. I'm asking (not rhetorically) how you think that is different to what Murdoch may or may not have done with 9/11 victims?"

I can’t comment on the 9/11 pager messages as I don’t know enough about how WikiLeaks or indeed Murdoch are alleged of having obtained them. What's your take?
In Response

by: Christopher Schwartz
July 19, 2011 19:23
@Fluxorum: If I may leap into the fray for a moment, in my reading of this post, Luke isn't trying to insinuate guilt on the part of WikiLeaks (assuming that's what you're actually concerned about). Rather, he's taking the stand-point of a news organization that receives information from an unknown source via an intermediary. The problem is: (a) how do they know the unknown source actually existed and/or (b) assuming the source does actually exist, what can they really know about its relationship to the intermediary?

The news organization's concern is whether the intermediary is either outright lying, or in the event that it is telling the truth, not the whole truth, i.e., what if the source was tacitly acting on behalf of the intermediary (plausible deniability)? When dealing with a somewhat amorphous entity like WikiLeaks, it is even more difficult, as the lines between source and intermediary, agent and recipient, are *potentially* blurred.

Again, though, although not entirely at a theoretical level, Luke's trying to work out the logic and ethics of the situation. That's how I read this piece, anyway. Even for those of us who side with WikiLeaks, hesitatingly, provisionally, or whole-heartedly, this a very serious problem that needs to be addressed. So, kudos to Luke.
In Response

by: Fluxorum
July 20, 2011 17:20
@Christopher Schwartz. Leap away. No need to assume what I am concerned about, I’m happy to be explicit about it: Biased reporting which bases its arguments on questionable evidence (some of it already discredited) and cavalierly smears WikiLeaks in the process.

If Luke Allnutt was not “trying to insinuate guilt on the part of WikiLeaks” maybe you can explain to me why he would choose the tendentious headline “Murdoch's Hacking Is Despicable, But Is WikiLeaks Any Better?” or the closing statement: “Hackers able to access any information, working outside standard journalistic procedure, with little transparency or accountability. Sounds a bit like WikiLeaks.” Allnutt states that the article is “an attempt to wrangle with the ethics and morality of hacking”. The only way in which he can legitimately include WikiLeaks in the argument, is by claiming that WikiLeaks is involved in hacking. Unfortunately the evidence he presents simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

With regards to your other points, I’d be interested to know why you think they are so problematic.

“The problem is: (a) how do they know the unknown source actually existed and/or (b) assuming the source does actually exist, what can they really know about its relationship to the intermediary?”

As long as the information is in the “public interest” (rather than just of interest to the public) it shouldn’t matter to the news organization who the source is. What matters is whether the information is true and whether the act of publishing it will cause greater good than the act of not publishing it. I assume that these are basic questions any journalist would asks before publishing any information, no matter its origin. From that viewpoint working with WikiLeaks doesn’t pose any problems which news organizations wouldn’t encounter when accepting information from anonymous sources.

by: Anonymous
July 18, 2011 19:28
What a hatchet job. Maybe you should work for Jerry Springer...lol

by: Gemtlemen from: Earth
July 18, 2011 19:53
Please, learn the correct meaning for the words you use.
Your irresponsible use of the word Hacking can damage the thousands of groups doing Hackerspaces, Hackathons and other activities with meaningful goals in health, development, access to clean water etc.

Please learn how to write, consult meanings of words in dictionaries, etc. if you want to provide a credible service.
For your education:
http://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc1983
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hacking_%28innovation%29

Thanks
In Response

by: Luke Allnutt
July 19, 2011 09:31
Thanks for your comment. As I said in the piece hacking is a loaded term. "But while every religion has its aesthetes, it also has its pedophile priests."

by: Catherine A. Fitzpatrick from: New York
July 18, 2011 20:04
Astounding that there is so much yelping -- and rightful yelping -- about Murdoch *maybe* having hacked into the phones of 9/11 victims -- not established yet although an investigation is opened -- and yet silence in the matter of WikiLeaks hacking into the pagers of firemen and policemen and obtaining illegally half a million messages from 9/11. Those law enforcers are largely represented among the 9/11 victims themselves. Yes, WikiLeaks did this, and only the tech media seems to have paid attention two years ago:

http://www.fastcompany.com/blog/kit-eaton/technomix/wikileaks-replaying-911-hacked-pager-messages

I'm happy to be unequivocal on hacking, which is unethical nomatter who does it:

http://3dblogger.typepad.com/wired_state/2011/07/seriously-what-is-this-double-standard-on-wikileaks-and-murdoch-all-about.html

@Gemtlemen -- no, you don't get to define a word in a way that exonerates crime, in Orwellian fashion. Hacking should be defined not by the coders elite class, but by the victims. Hacking is not a benign activity; hacking is a tool wielded a powerful class, not a neutral instrument. It is not sanitized by activities like hackathons for health or relief work which often don't contain any democratic accountability for coders or the participation of the supposed beneficiaries.
In Response

by: Luke Allnutt
July 19, 2011 09:33
Thanks for your comment, Cathy. And thanks for reminding about the WikiLeaks 9/11 release. Another indicator of the vast double standards going on.

by: Doug Johnson from: Vista, CA
July 19, 2011 06:39
"This isn't meant to be a shrill exercise in moral equivalency"

But that's exactly what it is. Publishing information gathered by someone twice removed in order to expose torture, mass murder, and high level manipulation to cover up and protect the same is nothing at all like hacking into the phone of a missing 13 year old, later found murdered, in order to sell a few more papers. Sorry, friend, trying to scrape The Guardian in this way is the very definition of shrill.
In Response

by: Luke Allnutt
July 19, 2011 09:29
Thanks for your comment, Doug. So your take would be that hacking is fine, as long as the target warrants it? So, in other words, in some cases, the ends justifies the means?
In Response

by: L M Schooley from: Hagerstown, MD
July 19, 2011 19:49
The author claims Murdoch's hacking is equivalent to hacking by Wikileaks but fails to make a convincing case that Wikileaks itself hacked anything. Regardless, there is a considerable difference, legally and ethically, between publishing the private communications of individuals and publishing the content of communications by government employees communicating the People's business in their official capacity. Individuals have a much stronger claim on privacy, legally and ethically, than governments because government officials are employees of, and (in theory, anyway) accountable to, the taxpayers.

Doug Johnson was correct to reject the author's false equivalency. In his response, the author failed to address anything Johnson actually wrote. Instead, the author absurdly claims that rejection of the false equivalency constitutes a blanket approval of all hacking...thereby making a second false equivalency.

This article and the author's comments are an embarassment to the people of United States, whose taxes fund this website.
In Response

by: Luke Allnutt
July 20, 2011 07:53
Of course each WikiLeaks dump is different -- with different levels of public interest. I am not talking about Cablegate here. I am talking about the hacked messages from the 9/11 pagers. Yes of course citizens have stronger privacy claims than public officials. But the 9/11 pager dump wasnt just officials, it was also private citizens. Messages from loved ones who perished in 9/11 -- were their families ever consulted? Was their privacy respected? Rather than equivalency, I'm more interested in the ethics of hacking -- whether media organizations should rely on hacked material or not. Or whether it depends on the target and the end justifies the means.
In Response

by: Tom from: UK
July 21, 2011 00:23
The messages sent to an official device though. Not the same as a private mobile phone.

by: leciat from: usa
July 20, 2011 15:02
Murdoch's Hacking Is Despicable, But Is WikiLeaks Any Better?

i would have to say that murdoch's hacking is not as despicable as wikileaks as, to the best of my knowledge, murdoch's hacking did not put peoples lives in danger as wikileaks has done.
In Response

by: Fluxorum
July 20, 2011 21:55
I hate to say it, but you are wrong on all accounts:

- WikiLeaks does not engage in hacking. There's no evidence to suggest otherwise (see above).

- WikiLeaks revelations have not put any lives in danger. There's no evidence in the public domain that suggests otherwise. If you know of any, please cite it.

- By deleting voice messages from Milly Dowler's phone News of the World interfered with a police investigation into a serial killer and may have caused delays in police apprehending him. After he killed 13 year-old Milly Dowler, Bellfield went on to murder two other young women and seriously injure a third. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Levi_bellfield

Seriously, what's with all the unfounded claims in this forum?

by: Kevin from: Chicago
July 21, 2011 00:16
Here's why this argument is flawed. There is absolutely no way that WikiLeaks is going about obtaining the information it publishes by using hacking.

What has WikiLeaks released in the past months? Besides posting more US State Embassy cables on their website, what have they released?

Now, what has Anonymous posted? What has LulzSec posted? What has the antisec hacktivist movement been putting up online from hacks?

Do the past months of operations at WikiLeaks look similar to the operations of Anonymous or LulzSec?

If WikiLeaks is getting their material through hacking, they are awfully atrocious and I cannot see why people would support them like many in the world do. WikiLeaks would be posting more frequently and have more "leaks" of material if they were using hacking.

They have not used hacking. They have used a submission system.

by: Mag Rasmussen from: London
July 21, 2011 00:19
Assange is hacking organisations and governments, which should be open and transparent. Murdoch is hacking individuals, which should be protected. Can and should not be compared at all!

by: Tom from: UK
July 21, 2011 00:21
Whether Wikileaks have put anyone's "lives at danger" is debatable. I somehow think there is a distinct moral difference between a Whistleblowing group aiming to release information on potential corruptment and other such acts of misconduct, and a Sunday tabloid newspaper trying to get a controversial story to sell more papers.

by: Paul from: UK
July 21, 2011 00:35
Is it right for any member of the public that doesnt hold any kind of official or governmental position to be spied on or to be targeted in any way for monetary gain i.e. the sales of media, NO it isnt.

Is it right for wikileaks and other websites to "watchover" our Members of Parliament or senators and expose wrong-doings and corruption and "Agreements of War" and internal Fraud etc,

YES it most certainly is, should this be deemed illegal, IMO No! it shouldn't, why? because for years, decades, these same PUBLIC SERVANTS; lets not forget that, have looked out for themselves and their families and friends for years for any financial gain, or kickback they can get and therefore using their positions of trust, the same positions we elected them into, to screw us all over in the mean time.

Guess what? the same self-serving PUBLIC SERVANTS are now, and rightly so, shitting themselves, because they cannot justify what they have been getting away with all these years, they're all scared in case THEY get found out, in case they get investigated and thrown in Jail.

WE THE PEOPLE, in countries all over the world are sick to F***ing death of all the lying, cheating, fraudulent PUBLIC SERVANTS out there and now the shit's hitting the fan, I for one am going to do all I CAN to help bring these people to justice and if that means helping companies out like wikileaks then SO BE IT.

No matter which High Ranking Government official states that wikileaks is wrong in what they are doing, they do so from a purely selfish point of view in fear, whilst using "the legal argument" primarily as a smoke screen.
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Written by Luke Allnutt, Tangled Web focuses on the smart ways people in closed societies are using social media, mobile phones, and the Internet to circumvent their governments and the efforts of less-than-democratic governments to control the web. 
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