On Oct. 21, Wikileaks released CIA Director John Brennan’s private emails from the late 2000s. The emails provide insight into shifts in government policy, but also contained personal information, including the social security numbers of Brennan and his wife, their home addresses and home telephone number. While leaks can increase transparency between government and citizens, releasing personal information is malicious, undermining the credibility of such activity in furthering public discourse.
A discussion of leaks would be incomplete without mention of Edward Snowden, an undoubtable paradigm to many aspiring political hackers. Though it would appear that the publication of political figures and organizations’ clandestine information is a common thread between the 2013 National Security Agency leak and the Brennan email release, the similarities end there. Snowden entrusted journalists to scrub documents of sensitive information prior to release and the documents themselves were of government activities affecting U.S. citizens — and many others — without their knowledge or consent. This practice had pre-Internet precedent; Daniel Ellsberg also approached journalists with the information that would eventually become the Pentagon Papers. This kind of screening lends leaks an air of legitimacy, as they are not intended to harm or malign individuals, but to further policy-oriented discussion.
Of course, the Internet offers a new medium for leaks to gain exposure, while also threatening to undermine whatever noble goals whistleblowers may espouse. The Brennan leak was of his personal AOL account, not official government documents detailing administrative action or programs. Sensitive information, which was not especially newsworthy, was published in full, a detail which would have been caught by the army of attorneys and editors news outlets have at their disposal. An indifference toward personal livelihood and security makes the political hacker seem less like a new-age crusader and more like a callous, armchair vigilante.
The leak of documents on U.S. drone tactics, reported by The Intercept several days before Wikileaks posted John Brennan’s emails, provides a good contrast. Issue-driven and journalistically vetted, this leak can to contribute to broader policy discussion in ways the private correspondences of John Brennan never could. Though the subjects in Brennan’s emails discussed are certainly relevant to current issues, the personal information sensationalized their release.
The Internet promises a kind of transparency political figures are often unwilling to deliver, a forum where information can be added to the political discourse. But the Internet is also an unchecked space and this puts the burden of responsibility on hackers to be extra careful in what they expose. For leaks to serve a civic good, hackers must forgo sensationalism and focus on meaningful contributions. Only then can they shape public discourse in a positive way.
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