Corporate Privacy and Journalistic EthicsWikiLeaks Equals Reckless Journalism
Needless to say, WikiLeaks is a subject that's weighed heavily on my mind as a journalist, as well as on the minds of a number of my journalism brethren.
My colleague Eric Chabrow yesterday blogged about the lack of controls the government has in place for internal access. "Simply," he writes, "if properly configured, an access-governance system might have prevented an Army private from extracting the diplomatic cables" - cables Pfc. Bradley Manning, an Army intelligence analyst, purportedly downloaded through a Secret Internet Protocol Router and saved to a disk, which he then sent to WikiLeaks.
We want to sniff out corporate and government corruption, but there has to be a balance.
I agree. Internal access is a problem, but limiting internal access is challenging, especially in the financial and healthcare spaces. If a consumer calls in for customer support on a bank account, the account service representative has to have access to at least some, if not most, of that customer's sensitive financial information. To steal an analogy provided yesterday by privacy expert and attorney Kirk Nahra: What happens when a nurse in a hospital takes an unauthorized peak at the medical records of her ex-boyfriend's new wife? How does the hospital address that? It can't deny a nurse or any healthcare practitioner access to medical records. It's a challenging issue.
That written, more controls are definitely in order, and financial institutions, government agencies, healthcare entities and corporations across the board could do a better job of monitoring access and setting up internal parameters. But those controls can only go so far. At some point, we have to factor in the relationship of trust that must exist between employee and employer. This is a tough one, especially from a journalistic point of view. Our society respects whistleblowers. We want to sniff out corporate and government corruption, but there has to be a balance. Have we swung too far in one direction, forgetting or neglecting the need for corporate privacy?
I appreciate what WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange says he is trying to do -- keep the public informed about potentially corrupt goings on that take place behind closed doors. As a journalist, I believe in that cause. But there have to be some ethics, and this is where the explosion of social media and the blogosphere have failed.
Journalistic ethics do exist, believe it or not.
During the 1930s and '40s, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt was in office, the unspoken rule shared among members of the White House Press Corps was to never show images of FDR in a wheelchair or leg braces. A polio survivor, FDR regularly used a wheelchair in private; but this physical ailment was, for the most part, concealed. Today, that kind of ailment would never be kept under wraps, and I'm not trying to argue that it should be. I only point it out to show that some mutual respect must exist between journalists and the beats they cover.
Most bloggers, at least those with no formal journalist training, don't get this. They spew out blogs with no fact-checking or source verification. In the WikiLeaks case, I see the same problem. I watched a YouTube clip of Assange yesterday, talking about how WikiLeaks gets its information. WikiLeaks takes anonymous information from anyone willing to send it, and Assange says even the WikiLeaks staff does not know the true identities of the sources it uses.
That would never happen in a newsroom. Even if a reporter agreed to keep a source anonymous, like Watergate whistleblower Deep Throat, that source would have to be known by the reporter and verified by an editor on staff. And some discretion, in the telling of the story, with respect for national security and corporate security, would definitely be practiced.
The WikiLeaks leaks are intriguing, and reveal a number of internal corporate and government security weaknesses that need to be addressed. But there is a broader social issue at play here as well -- one that suggests our society has swung the pendulum too far, losing site of the fact that a certain level of privacy should also be afforded to governments and business.